Turning inmates over to corporate executives is either the most cost-effective way to run a prison or the equivalent of modern-day slavery that constitutes doing commerce in human souls.

The debate over privatizing prisons had a full hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol, with both sides weighing in with hefty arguments they pitched to members of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.In the middle of the debate stood Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Pete Haun, who's indicated in the past he favors privatization but emphasized the need to go slowly.

"We need to proceed down this path toward privatization cautiously and prudently," Haun said. "We don't want to jump into something we can't get out of."

Others like William Jensen say lawmakers are wrong to even broach the ledge toward privatization.

Astronomical incarceration rates in this country "reflect a systemic social problem. It's not anything that can be cured by selling prisoners to the private sector," Jensen said.

Jensen, head of the Utah Citizens Education Project, told committee members that if the state is going to convict offenders, it needs to bear the burden of punishing them.

"A prisoner convicted by the state should be punished by the state," he said.

Joshua Miller, a labor economist with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, blasted corporations in the business of running prisons, likening them to "punishment for profit" and "dungeons for dollars."

"By their very nature, private incarceration companies are more interested in doing well than in doing good," he said. "They serve only the interests of their officers, directors and shareholders."

The debate was just another facet in the continuing discussions among Utah lawmakers and correction officials over potential privatization of prison facilities.

In the next six weeks, the state Department of Corrections is expected to issue a request for bids from private operators to build and run a 500-bed medium security facility somewhere in Utah.

Residents of Fillmore, where Ogden-based MTC has proposed building a prison, say they don't want it. Another site under consideration is in Duchesne County, where Wackenhut Corrections has already expressed interest in building a prison.

MTC's senior vice president Bernie Diamond said he can understand community concern and caution exercised by corrections officials but insisted if the state ends up not liking the job they do, they can always fire his company.

Diamond, like other corporate competitors at the hearing, said private prisons operate at reduced costs for housing inmates because it is their business to deliver the biggest bang for the buck.

"We would not exist, our competitors would not exist and we would not be one of the fastest growing phenomena in the world if we didn't succeed" at the business of running prisons, he said.

Proponents of privatization cited studies and repeatedly returned to the theme of being able to house inmates at costs of up to 20 percent less than the government can.

Diamond cited an example of one of his facilities being able to house inmates at an average of $35.90 a day in contrast to former state-operated costs of $43.08 a day.

But opponents lobbed skepticism at the corporate contentions, saying private providers can do it cheaper because they receive the model inmates less likely to act up and inmates who don't suffer from extreme medical problems.

Despite Wednesday's lukewarm reception of the idea of privatizing prisons, it appears Utah is latching onto a nationwide trend that is escalating in popularity and feeding the booming business of caring for criminals.

Research compiled by Chyleen Arbon with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel said 30 states have privatized correctional facilities and 35 have legislation giving them the option.

Across the country there are a 142 privately operated prison facilities, and Illinois is the only state in the country that prohibits them.

She said two companies control 75 percent of the facilities, with the industry at the $600 million mark with an anticipated growth of 30 percent in revenues.

"The trend seems to be going toward privatization," she said.

Jensen, with the nonprofit citizens group, said it is a disastrous trend.

"It is economically unwise and morally and ethically unsound," he said.