Tag Archives: prison privatization

Why We Can’t Reform Bad Policies

It’s the end of the semester, and like all professors at this time of the year, I am slogging through research papers and final exams, and complaining about otherwise bright students who can’t write a grammatically correct, properly spelled sentence. Or follow instructions. Or…

I’ll survive. (Although some students probably won’t…)

So long as their papers focus on the intersection of law and policy, I allow my students to explore whatever subjects interest them. For reasons I don’t understand, this often results in “waves” of papers addressing the same topic–in past years I’ve gotten several papers on the death penalty, or gun control, or euthanasia. This year, the favorites have been marijuana legalization and private prisons. (Students endorse legalizing pot; they object to privatizing prisons.)

The papers on private prisons compared inmate treatment, costs, oversight–the sorts of issues you would expect undergraduates to identify. But one of them also focused on a less-obvious consequence of prisons as business: lobbying by the “big guys” for more stringent punishments.

As the Washington Post recently reported

The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States – GEO and Corrections Corporation of America – and their associates have funneled more than $10 million to candidates since 1989 and have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, these private companies have seen their revenue and market share soar. They now rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue and the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute….

[S]everal reports have documented instances when private-prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars – such as California’s three-strikes rule and Arizona’s highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law – by donating to politicians who support them, attending meetings with officials who back them, and lobbying for funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Showing just how important these policies are to the private prison industry, both GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have warned shareholders that changes in these policies would hurt their bottom lines.

My students are quite properly critical of a system in which the profit motive, rather than public safety considerations, drive criminal justice policy.

I haven’t the heart to tell them that we live in an era when most policies aren’t the result of democratic deliberation informed by evidence and expertise — an era in which public policies are increasingly determined by campaign contributions and well-heeled lobbyists whose primary concern is for the bottom line–and screw the public good.

Emerging from a Different Kind of Prison?

There are the prisons we all recognize–utilitarian buildings constructed to hold lawbreakers–and then there are prisons of a less recognizable sort: rigid beliefs, the sorts of ideological commitments impervious to evidence.

Yesterday’s post referenced the copious academic literature analyzing one such ideological commitment.

As I noted in that post, for the past thirty-odd years, devotion to contracting-out (mis-labeled “privatization”) has been an article of faith with a lot of public managers and political science theorists, not to mention substantial numbers of folks in the business community that have profited from such contracts and the even higher percentage of nonprofit enterprises that have come to depend upon government funding.

This belief in the benefits of privatization has persisted despite significant amounts of research painting a considerably more nuanced picture.

Sometimes, however, reality really does bite. So I was interested in an article from the Idaho Statesman, reporting that the state will resume control of a prison that has been run by CCA, one of the largest private prison companies in the country.

An Associated Press report last year raised questions about how the Nashville, Tenn.,-based company was staffing the prison, and the state’s move is part of a larger debate over whether prison privatization works.

Over the past several decades, contractors have been brought in to run prisons, federal lockups and even county-level jails. The number of inmates housed in the facilities grew from 85,500 in 2000 to more than 128,000 in 2012, according to federal statistics.

Private prison operators have been repeatedly sued, amid allegations of rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity and contract fraud.
The Idaho Statesman article quoted University of North Florida criminal justice professor Michael Hallett, who has written a book on prison privatization. Hallett said the problems in Idaho reflect those seen nationwide.

“A private prison corporation operates just like an old-fashioned HMO, where the less they spend, the more they make,” Hallett said. “ … There’s lots of ways to game the system, through contract violations and even just legal contracts to house easier inmates.”

Idaho’s governor has been a longtime supporter of privatization, but the problems became too obvious for him to ignore. The situation is reminiscent of then-Governor Daniels’ belated admission that Indiana’s costly experiment with welfare privatization was a disaster.

The lesson today and yesterday isn’t that government should never contract out. The lesson is: the decision to contract for public services is more complicated than ideologues want to make it. Sometimes contracting is a good idea; often, it isn’t.

We deserve public managers who can tell the difference.