Tag Archives: private prisons

Adventures In Privatization

For a considerable period of time in the late 1900s, privatization of government functions was all the rage. (Not that it was true privatization; as I’ve noted before, actual privatization  requires that government completely withdraw from whatever activity was involved, leaving its provision entirely to the private sector.)

What public entities call privatization is almost always contracting-out or outsourcing–providing a service through a third-party surrogate rather than through government employees.

Enthusiasm for the practice has abated considerably, as research has steadily deflated the claims made by proponents. Contracting out doesn’t usually save money, for one thing, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

There are certainly public functions that lend themselves to outsourcing, but thanks to the American penchant to go “all in” on the latest management fad, contracting has often proved disastrous. From poor outcomes, to cost overruns, to outright corruption, analyses have been increasingly negative.  A recent research project adds one: government outsourcing decreases employee diversity.

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia revealed that when governments contract work out to private companies, fewer  African-American, Hispanic, and female employees are hired.

Over the past twenty years, private contracting has become a popular way to improve efficiency in the public sector.

“Increasingly, services that were once performed by public employees, are provided under contract by private firms,” explained study author J. Edward Kellough, a UGA professor of public administration and policy in the School of International and Public Affairs. “The question,” he added, “is whether this growth in contracting has been detrimental to minority and female employment.”

That’s not nearly the worst of it.

The Trump Administration has been contracting with private prison companies to house refugees at our southern border. Private prisons are arguably the most striking misuse of government outsourcing, and their operation of border facilities has raised understandable outrage.

I’ll let Paul Krugman take it from here.

Is it cruelty, or is it corruption? That’s a question that comes up whenever we learn about some new, extraordinary abuse by the Trump administration — something that seems to happen just about every week. And the answer, usually, is “both.”

What about the detention centers at the border?

And the same goes for the atrocities the U.S. is committing against migrants from Central America. Oh, and save the fake outrage. Yes, they are atrocities, and yes, the detention centers meet the historical definition of concentration camps.

One reason for these atrocities is that the Trump administration sees cruelty both as a policy tool and as a political strategy: Vicious treatment of refugees might deter future asylum-seekers, and in any case it helps rev up the racist base. But there’s also money to be made, because a majority of detained migrants are being held in camps run by corporations with close ties to the Republican Party.

Krugman then sums up the whole sorry experiment with “privatization.”

Privatization of public services — having them delivered by contractors rather than government employees — took off during the 1980s. It has often been justified using the rhetoric of free markets, the supposed superiority of private enterprise to government bureaucracy.

This was always, however, a case of bait-and-switch. Free markets, in which private businesses compete for customers, can accomplish great things, and are indeed the best way to organize most of the economy. But the case for free markets isn’t a case for private business where there is no market: There’s no reason to presume that private firms will do a better job when there isn’t any competition, because the government itself is the sole customer. In fact, studies of privatization often find that it ends up costing more than having government employees do the work.

Nor is that an accident. Between campaign contributions and the revolving door, plus more outright bribery than we’d like to think, private contractors can engineer overpayment on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of public-sector unions.

Krugman makes an even more important point about accountability.

As he says, if you outsource garbage collection, it’s pretty easy to determine whether the garbage has been collected (although I’d note it’s not so easy to tell where it’s been dumped…). But if you hire a private company to do something the public can’t see–like prisons or migrant camps– it’s easy to hide poor performance and generous overpayments to political cronies.

And running a prison, which is literally walled off from public view, is almost a perfect example of the kind of government function that should not be privatized. After all, if a private prison operator bulks up its bottom line by underpaying personnel and failing to train them adequately, if it stints on food and medical care, who in the outside world will notice?

And of course, the administration and its cronies profit from these facilities. It’s hard to disagree with Krugman’s final observation:

Every betrayal of American principles also seems, somehow, to produce financial benefits for Trump and his friends.

 

A Very Good Call

According to a recent article in the Indianapolis Star, part of Mayor Hogsett’s plans for a new criminal justice center includes terminating the city’s contract with a private prison company.

The mayor’s criminal justice reform task force has recommended that the Marion County Sheriff’s Department take over all operations for the proposed jail at the site of the former Citizens Energy coke plant, 2950 Prospect St. That means the county would end a decades-long contract with CoreCivic, formerly called Corrections Corp. of America.

There is a lot to applaud in the Mayor’s plan–especially the extent to which it recognizes the degree to which the criminal justice system has operated as a very unfortunate substitute for a functional mental health system. But the termination of the city’s contract with CoreCivic is particularly welcome. As the Mayor noted, the move will actually save the city money, but those savings are simply “icing on the cake.”

Beyond savings, the Hogsett administration wants to move away from a private operation model that has drawn fire from criminal justice reform advocates.

“First and foremost, that’s the job of our elected sheriff — to be responsible for the care and security of inmates,” said Andy Mallon, corporation counsel for the city. “That promotes accountability with public officials and transparency, whereas when you have a privately run jail, all of that gets transferred by a contract to a private, profit-driven company. We don’t think at this point we should be providing profits for jailing (inmates).”

The bottom line is–or should be–that there are some functions that government should rarely or never contract out, and incarceration is one of them. Giving private, profit-seeking enterprises authority to exercise the coercive power of the state is an invitation to abuse, and research has consistently found such abuse in the private prison industry. When the focus is on the fiscal bottom line, rather than public safety or offender rehabilitation, it isn’t surprising that such institutions save money by skimping on inmate’s meals or medical care, or that they are more abusive, violent, and dangerous than their government-run counterparts.

More insidious, however, is the effect of profit-making prisons on public policy. The companies that operate these prisons donate large sums to political figures, and spend significantly on lobbyists, and they aren’t just trying to curry favor with agencies that may award contracts. They are trying to influence criminal justice policy, arguing for laws that impose harsher and longer punishments and against efforts to decriminalize behaviors like marijuana use.

Criminal justice policies should be based upon their considered effects on public safety–not upon the profitability of politically-connected companies.

Mayor Hogsett has made a very good call.

Behind the Statistics

Linda Greenhouse, an always insightful observer of law and courts, has written an excellent column for the New York Times about the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama’s policy phasing out private prisons.

For Trump loyalist who keep pointing out that the stock market is doing well, she provides a “think about this” example of just what is fueling that optimism:

So the Trump administration is putting the welcome mat back out for private prisons, just as candidate Donald Trump said he would do, reversing the Obama administration’s policy of phasing them out for federal prisoners. It’s no wonder that shares in some of the nation’s biggest for-profit prison companies soared by double digits the day after the presidential election, making them among the biggest winners in the immediate postelection rally.

Greenhouse also provides us with a stark reminder of the “cost controls” that allow private prisons to make money. Her example comes from Indiana.

A decision on Feb. 21 by the federal appeals court in Chicago came just in time to remind us that privatization is a really bad idea. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a federal district judge’s dismissal and sent back for trial a case with the most appalling facts, brought by a dead prisoner’s mother against the company to which the Indiana Department of Corrections had outsourced its inmates’ medical care.

The opening paragraph of the opinion by Chief Judge Diane P. Wood tells the story: “Nicholas Glisson entered the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections on September 3, 2010, upon being sentenced for dealing in a controlled substance (selling one prescription pill to a friend who turned out to be a confidential informant). Thirty-seven days later, he was dead from starvation, acute renal failure, and associated conditions.”

After reciting the facts of this particular, egregious example, Greenhouse notes that she has two reasons for her focus on the Indiana case.

The first is to show the recklessness of President Trump’s wave-of-the-hand decision to retain the private prisons that a Justice Department study last year concluded “do not maintain the same level of safety and security” as those operated by the Bureau of Prisons. Sally Q. Yates, the holdover deputy attorney general whom President Trump fired last month for refusing to defend his travel ban, relied on that conclusion in announcing that private prison contracts would not be renewed and that the 22,000 federal inmates housed in those prisons would be cut to 14,700 by May 2017 and eventually to zero.

Greenhouse’s second reason was to highlight the stark differences between the judge’s opinion upholding the right of the mother to sue and the original decision, by a different judge, dismissing the suit. As she pointed out, the choice of the people who render judgment in our system–the judges nominated by the President  and confirmed by the Senate–is important. Those choices matter.

When I read about this case, and the absolutely unnecessary death of a “felon” whose crime consisted of the sale of one prescription pill, it reminded me of something else that matters:  the harm done by policies rooted in nothing other than social disapproval –what the Founders called “the passions of the majority.” Greenhouse has provided us with one example–drug laws that sweep far too widely and impose penalties wildly disproportionate to the offenses. The Trump Administration is in the process of providing us with another–the indiscriminate deportation of people whose only “crime” is coming to our communities without documentation.

Everyone disapproves of drug abuse, but not everyone agrees on the difference between “use” and “abuse”–or even the difference between harmful and harmless substances.

Similarly, everyone disapproves of illegal entry into the country in the abstract, but when we fail to distinguish between people who were brought here as young children by their parents,  people who have been longtime assets to their communities or who have served in America’s armed forces, and the “bad hombres” of Trump’s rash rhetoric, we aren’t just being inhumane, we are supporting measures that are both costly and stupid.

It matters who our judges are. It really matters who the President is.

 

Can We Spell “Predatory”?

It’s all about the money…..

Jeff Sessions just reversed an Obama Administration policy that would have ended the Justice Department’s use of private prisons. Studies by the DOJ had concluded that private prisons compared “poorly” to prisons run by the government; one damning report found that privately run facilities were more dangerous than those run by the Bureau.

I’ve previously written about the numerous reasons privatized prisons are a bad idea. For one thing, companies running them actively engage in lobbying for harsh policies and longer sentences.intended to protect and grow their profits.

Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in revenue.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, the three main private prison companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts.

The administration is also rolling back enforcement and monitoring of the numerous abuses by predatory for-profit colleges.  Trump has appointed Jerry Falwell Jr., of all people, to head up an effort to “deregulate” such institutions. “Deregulation” will  include new rules on teacher education, a new federal definition of a credit hour, and regulations that require consumer protections for students. Other targets include measures intended to ensure that these schools are actually providing students with marketable skills:  the gainful-employment regulation and the borrower-defense-to-repayment rule. Falwell has a clear conflict of interest, since any reduction in oversight will benefit his own university.

Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos continues to promote educational vouchers– what she euphemistically calls “school choice”–despite mounting evidence that they cheat both children and taxpayers. Doug Masson reports on the research (emphasis mine):

There has really never been strong evidence showing that voucher students do better than students attending traditional public schools. And, recent studies, show that they probably do worse. Given that traditional public schools add value to the community over and above the individual educations they provide to the students who attend, we should conclude and begin unwinding this voucher experiment. To improve public schools, we should look to systems in other countries that are outperforming ours and seek to emulate those things they are doing better…

Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next came from Louisiana where:

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

Finally, Ohio, where a study financed by the pro-voucher Waltons concluded, “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” Massachusetts seems to have a more successful program than Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio, but it is marked by “nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

In Indiana, the motivating impulse for voucher enthusiasts seems to be a combination of: a) undermining the influence of teachers’ unions; b) subsidizing the preferences of those who would want a private religious education; and c) providing access to that sweet, sweet education money to friends and well-wishers of voucher proponents.

There is overwhelming evidence that private prisons are a dangerous scam. Proprietary colleges rip off taxpayers while obscenely overcharging the students they fail to educate. Vouchers are a thinly-disguised subsidy for religious schools and a profit center for politically-connected “entrepreneurs.”

What’s that song from Cabaret? Money makes the world go ’round.

Welcome to Trumpville.

Following the Money, Prison Edition

Recent research from In the Public Interest reports that “graduates” of private prisons have higher rates of recidivism than ex-offenders leaving public institutions.

The brief shows that people incarcerated in prisons operated by for-profit companies, like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, have higher rates of recidivism than people incarcerated in publicly managed prisons. Evidence also suggests that prison telephone and video call companies make business decisions that increase the likelihood that prisoners subjected to their services will return to prison or jail.

The research attributes the higher recidivism rates to several factors: Private prisons are, on average, more violent than public prisons; the emphasis upon filling empty beds in their often far-flung facilities results in incarceration of offenders in locations that are often far away from their homes, with a resulting loss of contact with families and home communities; prison telephone companies charge high calling rates and many ban prisoner cell phones, which further reduces contacts between prisoners and their homes. (Adding to the problem, private prisons often ban in-person visitation and then charge prisoners and their families prohibitive rates to make video calls.)

The report notes that private prison companies have long histories of neglecting prisoners’ basic needs, focusing instead on their company’s revenues and profits. For example,

To reduce normal business risks around fluctuating prison populations, private prison companies add occupancy guarantee clauses to many contracts, which compel states and local governments to pay the companies for unused beds if the population drops below a certain threshold, typically around 90 percent of a facility’s capacity.

During the past few years, there has been growing concern about the operation and consequences of placing offenders in private prisons. As the New Yorker has reported,

Going into Election Day, few industries seemed in worse shape than America’s private prisons. Prison populations, which had been rising for decades, were falling. In 2014, Corrections Corporation of America, the biggest private-prison company in the U.S., lost its contract to run Idaho’s largest prison, after lawsuits relating to understaffing and violence that had earned the place the nickname Gladiator School. There were press exposés of shocking conditions in the industry and signs of a policy shift toward it….In August, the Justice Department said that private federal prisons were less safe and less secure than government-run ones. The same month, the department announced that it would phase out the use of private prisons at the federal level. Although most of the private-prison industry operates on the state level (immigrant-detention centers are its other big business), the news sent C.C.A.’s stock down by thirty-five per cent.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, that all changed. C.C.A.’s stock jumped forty-seven per cent. (It wasn’t just private prisons, either; Trump’s privatization promises caused sharp increases in the stock prices of for-profit schools .) As the New Yorker pointed out, the outlook for private prisons is particularly rosy, because so many of Trump’s policies will–if implemented– benefit them.

The Justice Department’s plan to phase out private prisons will likely be scrapped, and a growing bipartisan movement for prison and sentencing reform is about to run up against a President who campaigned as a defender of “law and order.” Above all, Trump’s hard-line position on immigration seems certain to fill detention centers, one of the biggest money spinners for private-prison operators.

As the article concludes,

It’s become common to speak of “the prison-industrial complex,” and the analogy to the military-industrial complex is a good one: in both cases, government spending helps fund very profitable businesses, which, in turn, lobby legislators and regulators to keep the funds flowing. Just as we spend billions on weapons systems that we may not need, so, too, we jail more people than we need for longer than necessary, because it keeps someone’s balance sheet healthy. In recent years, an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals had made some progress in weakening this system, going after policies like mandatory sentences. Trump’s election will make it much harder to sustain that progress. Private prisons, he said earlier this year, “work a lot better,” and he’ll doubtless look to expand their reach. And he has a simple and grim answer to how many people we should put in prisons and detention centers: More.

Welcome to policymaking in the Trump era, where evidence and experience are irrelevant, expertise and research are scorned as “elitist” and private profit is king.