Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dollars & Sins: The Argument against Private Prisons

There is going to be a grounbreaking on Monday up in Baldwin County for the new 1500 bed prison being built by GEO Group who will control day to day operations of the facility. I have mentioned the troubles GEO has had managing its other prisons across the country, as well as lawsuits, inmate abuses. mismanagement practiecs, deaths among inmates, corruption, & other troubling apsects if this toxic prison corrctional firm.

Private prisons seems to offer a slight cost advantage over public prisons, but they also have fewer staff and higher rates of violence. Private prisons have not revolutionized prison-operation models in the way that proponents of privatization predicted, and continue to assert, that they would. First, government-employees’ labor unions are typically quite strong, and the prison industry is no exception. On the other hand, private prison directors have a great deal of control over their labor, especially since most private prisons operate in the South and the West, where labor unions are generally weak.

Second, private prisons are not accountable to the general public in the same way that public prisons are. In most states, when a local government plans to make a large capital expenditure (like building a new prison) this requires voter approval. Private prisons are of course free to expend capital as they wish. This means that private companies can construct a new prison much more quickly than public prisons, and one would expect therefore that private prisons would save money (because the time spent waiting for voter approval instead of building the new facilities is expensive).

Of course, if private prisons save money for essentially these two reasons alone (and the low level of savings by private prisons suggests that they might), then it seriously calls into question the value of privatizing prisons. A prison industry modeled around treating its staff poorly and superceding public opinion would be very dangerous. One would expect high levels of prisoner violence (which private prisons have) because of underpaid staff and lack of staff. One would also expect that private prisons would not be responsive to changes in public attitude towards crime, the importance of incarceration in our criminal justice, or how much money should be spent on prisons.

It is much harder for the public to hold private prisons accountable than public prisons.

Public prisons (like most institutions placed under the executive branch of government) have a linear power structure.

At the top are upper level government officials (say in the Justice Department when considering federal prisons, or in the relevant state agency when considering state prisons). Below them are prison directors, and at the bottom are the staff (such as guards and prison physicians) who have regular contact with the prisoners. This is obviously a simplified description, and there are many people who will not fit well into any of the three categories I have described. None the less, this simple model works well for this analysis.

As for Private Prisons, there is no such thing:

The power structure has a government side, this time consisting of upper level government officials with the regulators of private prisons below them, and a private side, consisting of prison directors and low-level staff. The relationship between low-level staff and prison directors are in many ways comparable between private and public prisons (with the notable exception already described above that in private prisons, labor is typically much weaker). Likewise, the relationship between upper-level government and regulators in the private system is essentially comparable to the relationship between upper-level government and prison directors in the public system. The only exception is that one might expect prison regulators to have a closer, less adversarial relationship to the government than directors of public prisons do (this expectation is actually quite off). In addition, there are many other relationships that can be compared, for example the strength of private prison lobbying versus public prison employee lobbying. But I will not treat these. Instead I will focus on the one relationship which is unique to the private model has no analogue in the public model: the relationship between regulator and prison director.

What I hope this will show that is that we must construct a view of privatization which takes into account the role of profit motives and the possibility that the current “tough on crime” penology which is so popular today may some day change. Privatizing prisons creates a strong private interest in preserving the current penology. The current penology (as I argued at the outset) is in great part responsible for the exponential rise in prison populations which led to privatization and which continues to fuel the growth of the private prison industry. Surely private prison corporations will protest if the public does someday move towards a different view of crime.

Yes, public prison employees have profited, and they would also protest. The answer to this criticism lies in my analysis of the public accountability of private prisons. Perhaps private prison lobbies are stronger than public prison lobbies, perhaps not. But what is certain is that privatizing prisons adds an extra degree of separation between the public and the prisons. Moreover, the regulator-director relationship in the private prison power structure is extremely suspect. Because there is a weak link in this power structure, it is likely that in a situation of major change in our view of crime and the criminal justice system, this power structure will break down and no longer be effective.

The privatization of jails and prisons have been growing in the United States. Not only has there been a steady growth of private, for-profit operation of federal, state and county correctional facilities, but private firms have also become more involved in other aspects of the prison industry, such as the financing and construction of new prisons and the renovation of existing ones. Moreover, many of these private companies have gone public and are trading on the stock exchanges (GEO Group). Perhaps more than with other service industries in this country, the privatization of prisons has become a growth industry.

Yet, prison privatization continues to be one of the most controversial issues in public policy. Although sold to the public as a cost-saving measure, the privatization of prisons has not only led to significant changes in policy making and the management of prisons, but has also generated widespread concern that incarceration has become a profit-making industry. That, in turn, strengthens calls for policies on mandatory-minimum sentencing that keep the prison industry growing. After all, in order to be successful business enterprises, prisons will need occupants.

So I ask: What compels state policy makers to privatize their prisons?

In my opinion, the conventional response by political and appointed policy leaders has consistently been that they wish to save costs. But the truth may be otherwise. Its time to examine the potential reasons why a state might choose to privatize its prisons, and considers financial and political aspects in depth. I think & I'm sure others will agree with me that the desire to save costs is not the primary reason for state prison privatization. Rather, the more plausible explanations revolve around political and ideological factors such as the party of the governor and the overall political and ideological culture of the state. This work sets the record straight about the decision to privatize state prisons, revealing the political bias that often drives these policy choices.

In 1999 AFSCME conducted a poll not too long ago that showed that 51% of people oppose privately run prisons, and only 28% favor them. That opposition cuts across party lines. “Democrats, Independents and Republicans all oppose privatization,”

In early 2009, two judges in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County admitted sentencing thousands of children to jail in return for kickbacks from a prison-management company. Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan received a commission for every day they sent a child to private juvenile detention centres run by Pennsylvania Child Care and a sister company. The pay-offs came to $2.6m over seven years.

Absolutely disgusting. Makes you wonder how widespread this sort of thing could be.

This along with others make me think that if it can happen at other private prisons across the country, it can definitely happen here in Georgia

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