Harley Lappin: Private prison industry woos another top public official

There are two revolving doors in every prison system. One is for the inmates, many of whom fail on parole and keep coming back. The other is reserved for top administrators who, even amid scandal, move easily from high-powered positions of public trust to high-paid jobs in the private prison industry.

The latest prisoncrat to ride the gravy train to the private sector is Harley Lappin, who recently retired as director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Last week, the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest of the for-profit prison companies, announced that Lappin is now the company's executive vice president and "chief corrections officer."

Last February, Lappin was arrested in Maryland and charged with driving under the influence. According to news reports, he was observed driving erratically and failed field sobriety tests. He later issued a memo to his staff apologizing for "failing to lead by example."

In moving on to CCA, Lappin is following the example of another former head of the federal prison system, J. Michael Quinlan. As noted in a press release from the Private Corrections Working Group, Quinlan joined the company shortly after "settling a lawsuit that accused him of sexually harassing a male BOP employee. While settling the suit, Quinlan denied allegations that he made sexual advances to the employee in a hotel room."

Companies like CCA prize former high-ranking public prison officials because of their insider knowledge, contacts, and (hopefully) ability to bend the ear of influential legislators and policy makers. The new director of the U.S. Marshals Service, Stacia Hylton, went from a federal position that awarded lucrative contracts to companies such as CCA and The GEO Group (its chief rival) to a consulting job with the latter, where she reportedly made $112,000 in a matter of months before taking the USMS job.

State officials have also heard the siren call from private industry, too. Four years ago, Colorado Citizens for Ethics in Government turned up documents that showed that Colorado Department of Corrections official Nolin Renfrow began working for The GEO Group while still on the state payroll. Renfrow took paid sick leave to work for GEO on a state contract worth $14 million -- and reportedly worth up to a million-dollar bonus to him. The conflict of interest in the matter seemed clear to the ethics group, but no criminal charges were ever filed in the incident.

Although the arrangements have been sharply criticized by ethics watchdogs, the rules that are supposed to prevent such revolving-door relationships are full of holes. Lappin's move triggered yet another appeal from critics for Washington to address the problem. But at the moment, it's one of the more lucrative and legal ways that crime pays -- and Lappin can enjoy the ride.

More from our News archive: "'Labia lift' strip searches: ACLU action gooses prison officials into changing degrading policy."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast