Perhaps more than any other member of Congress, I understand prison life. I've been there.

Before being elected to the House of Representatives six years ago, I spent many years as a psychologist at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Lucasville, Ohio. I saw firsthand the challenges faced by correctional staff, who labor behind razor-wire fences and prison bars. Like many prison employees, I have had urine thrown in my face, been threatened with an open container of HIV-infected blood and been subjected to physical threats of violence.

My nine years working at the prison have had a lasting effect on me as a policymaker. They have convinced me that the current trend of shifting prisons from the public sector to the private is a dangerous mistake. That's why I have drafted a bill that would prohibit the privatization of federal prisons and limit the growth of privately run state prisons. Short of execution, incarceration is the ultimate expression of society's power over the individual, and it must remain the responsibility of the public.

The D.C. Zoning Board is preparing to decide on a bid by a private company--Corrections Corp. of America (CCA)--to build a 1,200-bed prison in Ward 8, and I am convinced the decision to do that would be a bad idea.

I find it repugnant that, contrary to historical practices, we are now allowing the profit motive to be interjected into our government's powers of incarceration.

A public prison is obligated to maintain a safe and secure environment for the corrections staff, the inmates and the surrounding community. A private prison, on the other hand, is obligated to its corporate shareholders. The raison d'etre of a private prison is profit, not protection.

Prisons are difficult, potentially explosive places, and in times of crisis, they need all the resources that can be brought to bear.

During Congress's Easter recess in 1993, a hellish riot broke out at the Lucasville prison. I found myself spending gut-wrenching days with the families of correctional officers who were being held hostage inside. This, one of the longest prison riots in American history, resulted in the murder of a correctional officer and several inmates by other inmates. It was brought under control with help from the National Guard, the state highway patrol and many dozens of correctional staff from other state prisons. Whether a private prison would be able to call on these resources in time of need is questionable.

While riots are a worst-case scenario in a prison, I also remember the stress that correctional staff endured every day, moment by moment. Proper prison management calls for adequate staff-to-inmate ratios, appropriate training and a strong emphasis on professional standards, all of which are harder to document behind the closed doors of a private prison. Across the nation, men and women work in potentially life-threatening situations in our jails and prisons. Obviously they are compensated, but in the public prisons they serve at the pleasure of the taxpayers, and they are directly accountable to the public.

Not so in private prisons. When a company seeks to profit from the incarceration of inmates, it must reduce costs. In some cases, the profits of investors are boosted by lowered employee salaries, reduced benefits, limited training, risky staff-to-prisoner ratios and sometimes the illegal mixing of maximum-security inmates with those who have committed nonviolent crimes. I am convinced that when it comes to the quality of the work done everyday by prison employees, we get what we pay for.

In Ohio, in July 1998, we witnessed an illustration of how the profit motive in private prisons can lead to disaster. At a private prison in Youngstown run by CCA--the company being considered to build the new D.C. prison--six prisoners, five of them murderers, cut a hole in the fence during a recreation break and walked out of the prison in broad daylight. All six were D.C. prisoners who had been transferred from Lorton Reformatory to Youngstown, an institution that, even before the escape, had been fraught with controversy. It had accepted maximum-security prisoners, including those from D.C., in violation of its contract, and mixed hard-core violent offenders with less violent, petty criminals. Quite predictably, the conditions culminated in multiple stabbings and murders of inmates by other inmates. Unfortunately, this escape was not an isolated incident.

In fact, the disaster at Youngstown prompted the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation, which produced a scathing report in 1998. It concluded that the Youngstown prison suffered serious breaches in security and that it "has experienced pivotal failures in its security and operational management as a result of seriously flawed decisions by [its] leaders."

The report went on to say that "expediency and the pressure of short-term objectives often prevailed over good judgment and sound correctional management procedures. . . . It is reasonable to conclude that certain of the most serious problems which endangered the safety of the public, the staff or the inmates were preventable . . . . "

The trend toward prison privatization is disturbing in another way--because of its potentially corrupting effects on public policy. Prison corporations like CCA have hired politically well-connected lobbyists to advocate for their cause. The profit motive is also an incentive for private prison advocates to begin lobbying for long-term and mandatory sentences that would keep their beds filled, their profits flowing and their investors happy.

Correctional staff--whether private or public--can make decisions regarding a prisoner's disciplinary record that can influence parole decisions. For example, consider a prisoner who receives a 15- to 45-year sentence. What happens within the prison walls--the relationship between the prisoner and the correctional staff and the disciplinary record established--can lead to the early release of that prisoner or his continued incarceration for the entire 45 years. But when private prison employees receive part of their compensation based on the company's stock value, those employees benefit personally from the continued incarceration of their charges. In the public system, there is no connection between an employee's compensation and the number of beds occupied at the facility.

Ultimately, private prisons are tempted to do whatever it takes to keep costs down and keep their beds filled, since, like a hotel, a private prison makes more money at full capacity. This may be acceptable when we are talking about hotel/motel management, but it is absolutely intolerable when we are talking about public safety. In the same way, it would be unacceptable for Wall Street to decide how many troops we deploy in Kosovo, or what weapons systems we purchase, or how much our soldiers are paid.

The nation's growing private prison infrastructure--which can now house 132,572 inmates, according to the Private Corrections Project--threatens to prevent us from making objective choices regarding a host of criminal justice decisions. As a member of Congress and a former prison employee, this is my concern: If we allow this growth to continue, once the prisons are in place, there is no going back. We must stop this trend now.

It sickens me to think that individuals sit in corporate boardrooms talking about increasing their bottom line when the commodity they are dealing with is captive human lives.

Rep. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, has represented Ohio's 6th District since 1993. He can be reached at www.house.gov/strickland.

Growth Industry

The U.S. prison population has grown steadily throughout the 1990s; at the same time, the violent crime rate has fallen. By June 30, 1998, more than 1.8 million people were behind bars in the United States--in federal or state prisons and local jails--according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Leaving aside for a moment those in local jails, consider this: Americans were incarcerated in state and federal prisons at a rate of 427 per 100,000 population in 1996, up from 139 per 100,000 in 1980.

As the prison population has grown, states and local jurisdictions have turned to for-profit companies to build and manage prisons under contract to state or local governments. The impact of private prisons is small so far, but growing. In 1989, they housed just short of 11,000 inmates. By 1998, that figure was up twelvefold to 132,572 inmates, according to the Private Corrections Project at the University of Florida.

Texas leads the way, with more than 30,000 people in private prisons, followed by California (11,294), Oklahoma (9,716) and Georgia (9,457). Locally, the District (with 866 prisoners) and Virginia (1,500) have ventured into private prisons; Maryland has not.