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PLN quoted in "Private prisons: A good idea or a dangerous one?"

University of Phoenix, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN quoted in "Private prisons: A good idea or a dangerous one?" - University of Phoenix 2011

Private prisons: A good idea or a dangerous one?

Jill Elaine Hughes, UOPX Writer Network

August 2, 2011

College of Criminal Justice and Security

Many states (and in some cases, the federal government) have shifted operations of their prisons to private companies over the past few decades, and an increasing number of states are currently considering it as an option. With ever-larger numbers of incarcerated persons, longer mandatory sentencing, increased recidivism, and overall skyrocketing costs, legislatures in Washington and across the country are looking for creative solutions when it comes to managing their prison budgets. The private prison industry has gained a small-but-growing toehold in our criminal justice system based on its claims that privately operated prisons are cheaper to run than government-operated prisons and therefore save the taxpayer money. But is this actually true? The answer isn’t quite so simple.

Numerous studies have been conducted comparing the costs of privately administrated prisons versus public ones, and the resulting data is inconclusive at best. For one thing, unlike public prisons, private prisons are not always legally obligated to take on even the most expensive prisoners (i.e., Death Row/maximum security inmates, sick/aged/infirm inmates, or pregnant female inmates, for example), and therefore can reduce their operating costs by “cherry-picking” only the cheapest prisoners. For another, some states (such as California), only use private companies to operate lower-security (and therefore less costly) prisons. Therefore, statistical comparisons of private prison costs versus public ones are often an “apples-to-oranges” analysis.

Further complicating things is the fact that many private prison companies do not share their costs data publicly. Many other published studies contain data that appears to have been skewed by the political and/or business leanings of those conducting the studies (such as those studies funded by the private prison industry).

However, there exists one independent study that compared two very similar Florida prisons in terms of size, prison population and services offered — one public, one private — and concluded that the privately run prison did indeed operate at a much lower cost, at least on a per-diem basis. The study compared South Bay Prison, which was privately run, with Okeechobee, which was publicly run, across a four-year period. The study found that in every year studied, the privately run prison (South Bay) operated at significantly lower costs than its very similar publicly run counterpart. (See Figures 1 and 2; The complete study can be viewed at

But if private prisons really are cheaper to run, at least in the short run, does that really save the taxpayer money in the long run? And should cost be the only consideration the government considers when making the decision to take its prisons private?

Margery L. Melvin, JD, is a sitting administrative law judge in California as well as a former parole adjudicator for the California Department of Corrections. She’s also a faculty member in the University of Phoenix College of Criminal Justice and Security, where she teaches Ethics in Criminal Justice, Introduction to Criminal Law, and other related courses. While Ms. Melvin does not have direct experience dealing with private prison administration, she currently teaches University of Phoenix Criminal Justice students who have themselves worked in privately operated prisons. “I frequently discuss the issue of private prisons in my classes, and I also have students who have themselves worked as corrections officers inside these private prisons,” she says. “The general consensus amongst my students, including those who have worked for private prison companies, is that they are a bad idea, both financially and ethically.”

According to Melvin, private prison companies claim to provide savings to the taxpayer primarily by cost-cutting, and that can include everything from providing cheaper food to paying lower wages to corrections officers — something that may save money in the short run, but can prove expensive over the long term. “Corrections officers in government-run prisons are trained and certified professionals doing a very difficult job,” she says. “While the private companies will often hire anybody off the street and pay them $8 an hour. What kind of quality can you really expect to get at that wage? Professionalism and competence are something well worth paying for when you’re running a prison.”

Melvin goes on to say that while the general public may not be interested in investing money in prisons, the government has both a legal and moral responsibility to do so. “We have a duty to not only protect inmates against third-party harm but also to ensure a safe environment for all who enter,” she says. “If we don’t, and prisoners are harmed or killed, that can lead to lawsuits, and those lawsuits can become very expensive, overrunning any cost-savings that a private prison might have brought in the short term.” Melvin cites a pending lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state of Idaho Department of Corrections as one example; the suit alleges, among other things, that Idaho inmates held in a privately operated state prison there were improperly harmed by unqualified prison guards as well as other inmates.

Despite her misgivings, Melvin does concede that in some cases, privately operated prisons might be a good idea. “I think in the case of low-security, female-only prisons, you could see significant cost-savings to the taxpayer,” she says. On the other hand, Melvin remains very concerned that private prisons lack the public transparency of a government-run operation.

“If a prisoner is harmed or killed, in a public prison the family can file a Freedom of Information Act claim and find out exactly what happened. There are public safeguards in place with a public prison,” Melvin argues. “With a private prison, you often can’t do that, it’s all kept secret. How can a private corporation possibly be as transparent as a government agency? That really is the $10,000 question.”

Carl Nink, MBA, is a faculty member in the College of Criminal Justice and Security at University of Phoenix as well as a former prison warden in the Arizona Department of Corrections. He now works for a company that operates private prisons (he prefers the term “contracted corrections”) in multiple states, and he was also instrumental in bringing private prison administration to the state of Arizona. Having worked in both government-run prison administration and on the private side, he has seen how both worlds operate, and has concluded that private-run prisons “are performance-driven, more accountable and as good and (in some cases) may be better.”

“Across the country you see a sweeping change going on when it comes to privatization,” Nink says. “The interest is in reducing costs. There is a significant gap between revenues and expenditures, and legislators are exploring all the options. Many states and even the federal government have found cost savings via contracted corrections.”

Nink, who teaches Futures of Criminal Justice among other courses, is definitely a big believer in private prison administration. “You improve the efficiency, reduce the cost and improve the outcome,” he says. “Competition raises the bar and gives the taxpayer the biggest bang for the buck.”

Having worked as a prison warden in an Arizona state prison himself, Nink disagrees with the criticisms commonly lodged against the private prison industry. “Public officials tend to spend whatever budget they get, so they can keep getting it the next year,” he says. “What motivation do they have to save money that way?”

Nink himself cites the above-mentioned Florida study as well as several others as proof that private prisons save money. However, a recent government study conducted by the State of Arizona of its own privately run prisons found that at least in Arizona, contracted corrections actually offers very little savings to the taxpayer.

Nink also defends private prison companies’ practice of keeping much of their operating procedures and costs secret from the public. “We have the right as private companies to protect our proprietary staffing and cost information,” he says. “If we published all of this information, our competitors could use it to underbid us on contracts.” Not only that, Nink argues competition between the various private prison corporations leads to better service and conditions for inmates. “When I worked in the state prison system, a lot of expenditure details just got covered up,” he says. “Not so when companies are competing for the business. I would argue that competition leads to more transparency.”

Alex Friedmann is Associate Editor of Prison Legal News as well as a nationally-known policy analyst/speaker on prison privatization and criminal justice issues. He’s also a convicted felon and former inmate in a privately operated prison in the state of Tennessee, giving him a unique perspective on the private prisons issue to say the least. “Most inmates are actually in favor of private prisons versus public ones when they’re on the inside,” he says. “So was I, initially. This is because the private operators do things like offer soft drinks instead of healthier beverage options like milk and juice in the chow halls [soft drinks are cheaper] and in the case of Tennessee, had a brand-new facility, compared with older, deteriorating state prisons. These types of things are very important to prisoners.”

Indeed, at the time Friedmann was serving time, the state of Tennessee was under a federal court order to improve the conditions of its state prisons, and the state partnered with a private company to help meet the requirements of the court order. “It certainly could not have been worse than the Tennessee state prisons at the time, which were horrendous,” Friedmann says.

Friedmann’s initially favorable opinion of private prison administration changed over the course of his incarceration, however. He cites several examples why, including how the private prison administration company’s radical cost-cutting on everything from security staff to medical care to toilet paper led to violence, corruption, and even successful prisoner escapes. “There was a high level of corruption among the prison guards, likely because they were poorly paid,” Friedmann says. “We had four inmates cut through the security fence and escape using bolt cutters they’d obtained from a guard.”

As if that weren’t shocking enough, Friedmann shares some other equally disturbing anecdotes. “To save money, they actually used prisoners to write the software code for the computer security system to track failures of the perimeter fence alarms, since they don’t have to pay prisoners,” he says. “Talk about giving the fox the keys to the henhouse.”

In terms of staff corruption at the prison, Friedmann also cites a job-training program co-sponsored by Vanderbilt University that used free prison labor to refurbish donated used computers for re-issue to Tennessee public schools. “The prison company staff was taking all the better computers for their own personal use for free, all the way up to the warden level,” he alleges. “The public schools were not getting what they were supposed to because the prison staff was corrupt all the way up the line.”

While Friedmann is familiar with studies that show how private companies can operate prisons more cheaply than the state, he says that doesn’t mean the savings benefit the taxpayer. “Any savings that these companies wring out of a dollar — they’re keeping that for themselves as profit,” he says. “The taxpayer is not benefiting at all.”

Jeffrey Smallwood is a former Commander with the Orange County Sheriff's Office of Orlando, Florida and a former Manager/Deputy Sheriff at the Osceola County Sheriff's Office of Kissimmee, Florida. During his tenure at both, he saw first-hand some of the complicated issues that arise when administration of local jails (i.e., lockups where arrestees await trial) is shifted to non-law-enforcement entities in the name of cost-savings.

“My issue with the change was accountability,” Smallwood says. “If someone is killed in the jail who is responsible, the jail manager or a CEO in some distant city? Who takes the hit? If a dangerous prisoner escapes who answers for it? With whom does the public place its grievance?”

Smallwood also rejects the argument that private administration of criminal justice departments — be they large prisons or small local lockups — saves money. “Any time you transfer the management over to somebody on the outside, the budgets just swell. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

Prison privatization is more than just a cost issue — for many, it’s also an ethical/moral one. Donna Red Wing is Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit organization that opposes prison privatization. “We believe that for-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers have no place in a democratic society,” says Red Wing. “Profiteering from the incarceration of human beings compromises public safety and public justice. Some things should never be for sale.”

While prison privatization remains controversial, it has become a front-and-center issue in these challenging times as legislatures across the country look for new ways to cut spending. Whether prison privatization really results in long-term cost-savings to the taxpayer remains to be seen.



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