Private Prisions—Grade: Incomplete
By Debra Miller, CSG Director of Health Policy
While states have been privatizing prisons since the 1980s, the jury is still out on whether such actions are successful.
Florida state court Judge Jackie Fulford in June 2012 found “many shortcomings in the evaluation of whether privatization is in the best public interest as it relates to cost savings and effective service.”
That opinion came as state legislators rushed to privatize 29 south Florida prisons in a last-minute budget provision in 2011. Fulford said that violated state law.
Former Sen. Paula Dockery, who served for 16 years before being term-limited at the end of 2012, said many questions about the evaluations of private prisons must be answered. She’s not opposed to trying prison privatization on a case-by-case basis, but “the record in Florida is still too sketchy to proceed wholesale.”
In fact, Gerry Gaes, former director of research for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and now visiting faculty member at Florida State University, reviewed available research on the topic and disputed one management system is better than the other.
“The research literature on prison privatization does not show that one sector is more efficient than the other,” he said in a February 2012 summary of his review. “This may be because any savings to the taxpayer that the private sector achieves through lower wages and benefits to its employees is diminished by the profits it reaps from the contract.”
Florida projected a $15 million savings under the 2011 privatization proposal. But Dockery said that’s just a small drop in the bucket of a $2 billion corrections department budget.
“What I find most troubling is that if you are going to change policy, you should be able to demonstrate costs less or the same as publicly operated prisons and services as good or better, not just claim to be able to save $15 million,” she said.
Those savings also may be skewed, she said. Private prisons operate in newer facilities that are in better repair than those in which the state operates prisons.
“We are comparing apples and oranges,” she said. “They (private prisons) avoid the elderly and unhealthy prisoners, stacking the system to run a prison cheaper.”
Proponents of prison privatization tried again in the 2012 Florida legislative session. Efforts to privatize those 29 prisons failed by a narrow a 21-19 margin in the state Senate. Florida is now moving to privatize health care services in prisons.
Proponents pointed to analyses by the legislative research unit that showed some savings in side-by-side analyses of public and private prisons. Those reports, however, noted, “the cost savings estimates are subject to caveats and should be evaluated cautiously.”
An Arizona legislator also wants his state to tread lightly in judging the success of private prisons.
Rep. Chad Campbell is leading the charge in Arizona to evaluate the efficiency of private prisons and savings to taxpayers. He told The New York Times in 2011 that private prisons typically only house relatively healthy inmates.
“It’s cherry-picking,” Campbell said. “They leave the most expensive prisoners with taxpayers and take the easy prisoners.”
This fact was noted in the methodology section of a 2011 Arizona Department of Corrections report with side-by-side comparisons of state-run and privately run prisons. “(U)nlike the private contractors, the ADC is required to provide medical and mental health services to inmates regardless of the severity of their condition(s).”
The Arizona Department of Corrections originally proposed privatizing 5,000 state prison beds in 2011. The department scaled back plans in 2012, issuing a request for proposals for 2,000 beds.
That proposal faced rough sailing following an advocacy report documenting a $3.5 million annual loss to the state from prison privatization and various incidents of poor quality service, including a high-profile escape that resulted in murder charges against the escapees. State statutes require cost and quality comparisons between state-run prisons and those run by private companies and those have been completed for the 2008, 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. But until the American Friends Service Committee, a national Quaker organization that deals with justice issues, conducted a 2012 review, very little qualitative data existed on the quality of services inside the prison and the impact of the prison on public safety.
“It is sort of ridiculous that a nonprofit organization had to do the first ever state review of costs and services,” said Caroline Issacs, program director of the American Friends Service Committee in Tucson.
Campbell filed six bills in 2012 to require more transparency, accountability and state regulation for private prisons. And in 2013 he again filed the bills, including one establishing a private prison study committee to make recommendations on the continued use of private prisons in Arizona.
Quality and Success
Gaes told CSG that measuring quality of prison operations, whether public or private, is difficult. He warns that states must improve their ability to monitor both cost and quality. He said most of the time people don’t know how to do it correctly. “It is harder than you would think,” Gaes said.
“Absent these controls, private prison operators will squeeze profits by lowering the quantity and quality of their services,” he said.
Furthermore, Gaes said, over the long run he fears what he called a race to the bottom.
“As a general rule of thumb, privatization has lowered the cost and reduced the quality and now that becomes the new unit of comparison for privately and publicly operated prisons,” he said.
Florida’s Dockery believes privatizing prisons can be a dangerous policy position where the state incentivizes having more prisoners, which may perversely stand in the way of other criminal justice reforms. A few years ago, she worked for sentencing reform—for instance to reduce or eliminate prison time for failure to pay fees or fines. The legislature passed a bill establishing an independent commission to study sentencing guidelines, but that commission was never staffed.
Florida has among the toughest mandatory sentencing laws in the nation, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States. In other words, lawbreakers in Florida are more likely than in other states to go to prison and Florida has not yet moved to institute sentencing reform as have many other states, said Julie Ebenstein, staff attorney at the Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. One impact of sentencing reform is a reduction in corrections costs.
“Misdirected attention to prison privatization (to save money) may sap the energy to deal with over-incarceration and financial wastefulness of prisons coming from the right and libertarian factions,” Ebenstein said.