Saying he is concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest, a Senate leader is urging the corrections board to look to a more objective source to conduct a study of the Oklahoma prison system. Governor Keating has said a friend of his in the private prison industry will do the study for free.
"I think common sense dictates that you should be suspicious of anyone who offers to do something for nothing, especially when that person has a vested, financial interest in the outcome of the project," said Senator Cal Hobson, Vice-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
At a news conference today, Governor Keating recommended the corrections board use J. Michael Quinlan, the director of strategic planning for the Corrections Corporation of America. CCA is the largest private prison vendor in the world.
"Mr. Quinlan is probably a fine individual, but unfortunately, he has a rather glaring conflict of interest in this case. He and his company could profit from the recommendations he makes about the Oklahoma prison system," noted Senator Hobson.
Quinlan's company, CCA, is the only private prison vendor currently operating in Oklahoma. It recently purchased a private prison in Hinton and is building another one in Holdenville. Plans for yet another private facility in Cushing are also on the CCA drawing board.
"If you want an absolutely unbiased study from a neutral party, you can't go to the only for-profit, private prison vendor in Oklahoma. Common sense says that's a bad idea for a number of reasons.
"Even if Mr. Quinlan does a professional, objective study, it will be tainted, at the very least, by an appearance of impropriety. No matter how good or how insightful his work is, it will be surrounded by a scent that is somewhat unpleasant," said Senator Hobson.
"I'm afraid it will give some people a reason to reject it out of hand without giving careful thought to the report itself. I don't think that's fair to Mr. Quinlan or the people of Oklahoma."
The Senate budget leader said Oklahoma would be better served if it contracted for a professional, unbiased study the first time around, instead of opening the doors to the delays that might result from a tainted examination.
"We can't afford to waste time on a study that may ultimately be deemed to be biased and therefore, unusable. I think it would be a mistake to set ourselves up for a situation where, three months from now, we could be in the same boat we are today on prisons," said Senator Hobson.
"We need to do it right the first time by finding someone who is both knowledgeable and completely objective."
Senator Hobson said a more objective source would be the American Correctional Association. The ACA is a non-profit, non-partisan organization with an international membership of professionals from federal, state and county prisons around the world. It is responsible for accrediting prisons in the United States.
"If you want a fair, unbiased study, I think the ACA is a good place to start," said Senator Hobson.
"It may take a small investment to conduct an expert, objective study of our prison system, but if it ultimately helps repair the problems, it will be money well spent. I think it would be a great mistake to be penny wise and pound foolish on this question. Just because something is free doesn't mean it's the best bargain on the block."