Public versus private corrections: Picking the winner

After sifting through these arguments, both pro and con, I sought out some studies that I felt may provide some neutral analysis of the public versus private corrections debate

Through the first three parts of this series I covered the creation and history of private corrections and gave voice to both the private corrections industry and to those in opposition of private corrections.

As you would anticipate, the passions run fairly strong on both sides.  Private corrections providers feel they have become a valuable component and contributor in the field of corrections, while a diverse group of individuals oppose the practice of private, for profit, corrections operations.  What I found interesting is that the group opposed to private corrections is comprised of some pretty odd "bedfellows."  

The opposition is largely made up of law enforcement unions, the ACLU and civil liberty attorneys and lastly, religious organizations.  I found it amazing that organizations and individuals that are often  in direct opposition to each other, found common ground to oppose privatized corrections. 

The unions' principle argument is the risk to the public caused by poorly paid and trained staff at privately operated facilities.  In addition, unions complain that privates often house less sickly inmates and lower risk inmates who present less security concerns. 

Both of these categories of inmates are less costly to house and unfairly skew cost comparisons with publicly operated facilities.  It goes without saying that unions are also motivated by a degree of self preservation, as private corrections facilities are almost universally non-union.

The ACLU, civil liberty attorneys and religious groups oppose private corrections on moral and ethical grounds. To some degree, each of these groups find it reprehensible that a process, so inherent to the governments' responsibilities to its citizens, could be parceled out to for-profit corporations.

Private corrections: What's the fuss about?
Of course, on the other hand, private corrections providers do not seem to comprehend what all the fuss is about.  They define themselves as "partners", not competitors with public corrections agencies.  They view private corrections as filling a much needed role in corrections systems, particularly in these difficult economic times. 

Given their private industry model, they claim to be far more efficient in purchasing and construction than the cumbersome government procurement process that limits public correction agencies.  This streamlining allows privates to lay claim to 5 to 7 percent lower operating costs, while still generating a profit for the parent company.

After sifting through these arguments, both pro and con, I sought out some studies that I felt may provide some neutral analysis of the public versus private corrections debate.  There were interesting studies conducted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (2001), US Department of Justice (2001), and University of Utah (2007),among others, that attempted to study these issues. 

In large part these studies came to the conclusion that savings created by changing from public to private operation of a correction facility were likely to occur initially but, over the long haul, savings would be minimal at best.  Distinct differences were noted in staff training and salaries as well as inmate lifestyle and welfare issues. 

The privates tend to spent less per inmate on food, medical care and inmate rehabilitative services than their public counterparts.  On the positive side, privates were found to be rapidly improving from an operational practice standpoint, and were overcoming  significant and widely publicized failures that took place early in the era of privatized corrections. 

Study analysis: No significant cost differences
In the end, most of these studies concluded that there were fewer operational differences and also less cost savings when comparing public versus privately operated facilities.  Quite simply, there were no significant operational differences or cost savings between the two systems - a virtual dead heat.

Then in 2010, a study was conducted by the State of Arizona that rocked the notion that  private corrections provided a cost savings benefit to government.  The Arizona study attempted to equalize significant factors when evaluating incarceration costs.  It took into consideration the custody level of the inmates and their medical needs status, among other criteria, that are directly relevant to the cost of housing inmates. 

This study concluded that, when all factors are taken into proper consideration and weighted appropriately, privately operated facilities were actually more costly to operate than their public counterparts.

This determination seemed to lend credence to the argument put forward by those opposing privatized corrections that most earlier cost comparisons of these systems failed to incorporate any of the following pertinent factors:

  -  Public systems had central office and other administrative costs that made the public
     cost per inmate higher;
  -  Privates tended to house a greater ratio of reduced custody status and behaviorally
     compliant inmates;
  -  Public facilities housed the more medically and psychologically fragile inmates;
  -  Transportation costs were largely borne by the public corrections agency.

All of these factors tended to distort a proper cost comparison unless they were weighed into the financial analysis.

In the end, I must conclude that private corrections operations is not a cost savings panacea for financially strapped state or local jurisdictions.  The notion that a private concern can operate more cost effectively while still generating a profit, is just that - a notion, not a fact.  In the end, private corrections providers pay lower wages to their corrections line staff, spend less on staff training and economize on inmate food costs, medical care, and rehabilitative services. 

State and local jurisdictions still handle the most dangerous and fragile inmates and are saddled with all of the administrative and oversight responsibilities for the corrections systems they operate

There are also the moral and ethical questions as to whether government agencies should transfer their most fundamental functions of public safety to private, for-profit companies.  My answer to that question is "No, they should not".

However, I must issue a word of caution as I conclude this series.  The corrections system of the United States is need of a major change in direction.  We currently have the largest number of incarcerated citizens in the world, both in pure number and in the percentage of our overall population.  We  have more people imprisoned than countries like Russia, China and Iran who we in the U.S. tend to  view as less civilized in their approach to human rights. 

So where does that leave us as a nation?  We need to take a critical look at how, how long and why we incarcerate people.  Economic pressure has begun to dictate a change in our perspective on incarceration.  To reduce expenditures, many states are turning to early release programs, shock incarceration followed by community supervision and specialized treatment in lieu of prison sentences, particularly with non-violent narcotic offenders. 

These changes have resulted in a reduction in the number of persons incarcerated, which in turn has lead to staff reductions and, in some jurisdictions, prison closures.

As the privates look to prosper in this dwindling market, CCA, the nation's largest private corrections provider, took a very bold step.  In February of this year, CCA sent a letter to 48 states offering to purchase their existing prisons.  To states already cash strapped with aging facilities in need of significant capital repair, this has to be a tantalizing offer.  

However, this offer obviously comes with some strings attached.  The two most significant requirements are that the state must agree to 20-year management contracts with CCA for the purchased facilities as well as a guarantee to keep those facilities filled to 90 percent of capacity.  If taken up on their offer, CCA would increase their present market share while also adding stable, long-term management contracts.  This is a very wise business strategy in this changing corrections climate.

While selling off state assets may provide some fast capital and reduced maintenance, not everyone sees that as prudent fiscal policy. When the sale of a state correctional facility was proposed in Louisiana, State Treasurer John Kennedy compared the strategy to "a junkie selling the television set and radio to generate money for his next fix." 

States would be wise to do a very careful analysis before considering the CCA offer.  The long-term management contract and occupancy requirement are commitments that may erase any short-term financial gains resulting from the sale.  In addition, the ACLU and several major faith-based organizations issued strong letters in opposition to this CCA proposal.

The privatization of corrections has actually helped public corrections agencies improve operations.  The efficiency of the privates caused government agencies to examine their own process.  Cost containment and fiscal controls became more critical to overall prison management.  If governments want to take strategies to the next level, they must continue to streamline purchasing procedures to assist public entities in operating "like a business."  

Private corrections companies formed and flourished due to the knowledge gained in "how not to do things" gleaned from retired former public corrections officials.  It is time that current corrections professionals turned that process around.  We need to learn from the success of our private counterparts and establish new operations processes that clearly demonstrates that public corrections is the safest, most efficient, cost effective, humane and morally appropriate system for those we elect to incarcerate. 

Once we accomplish that transition, the private industry presence in corrections will be eliminated or, at a minimum, significantly diminished.  If we fail at that attempt, then shame on us for being unable or unwilling to grow and change.

What do you think?

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