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Private Prisons in the United States: An Assessment of Current Practice (Review of Report)

Reviewed by Alex Friedmann

In 1997 Congress instructed the Attorney General's office to undertake a study of prison privatization, to include a review of legal issues and existing research regarding cost effectiveness. The study was conducted by Abt Associates, Inc. through a cooperative agreement with the National Institute of Corrections, and the resulting report was released in October, 1998.

The report presents a comprehensive overview of prison privatization based on a survey of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and 48 states. Only Alaska and Maine did not respond; the report does not encompass local governments.

Previous studies of prison privatization conducted in Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Arizona are evaluated and critiqued. The report notes that methodological problems in the studies make it difficult to assess privately-operated facilities vis-a-vis public prisons. Other factors also preclude accurate comparisons - e.g., differences in the security classification of prisoner in public and private prisons. "Some of the more extravagant claims made on behalf of prison privatization can be traced to inappropriate handling of these issues," the authors of the report state.

The report concludes that there is insufficient data to assess the cost effectiveness and performance quality of private prisons. "Only a few of the more than a hundred privately operated facilities in existence have been studied, and these studies do not offer compelling evidence of superiority," say the authors. These findings are consistent with a 1996 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office which found mixed results and little evidence that prison privatization results in cost savings.

The report also addresses various legal topics relevant to the private prison industry, including liability, employee/organized labor issues, use of force policies, inmate work programs, and contractual issues. Regulatory laws for private prison operators are discussed using an Ohio statute enacted in March 1998 as an example.

One of the report's few shortcomings is that it quotes Professor Charles W. Thomas, Director of the Private Corrections Project, and critiques his research involving a private prison in Arizona, but does not mention Prof. Thomas' business and financial ties to the private corrections industry that may have influenced his conclusions.

The report includes extensive footnotes with references and case law, bibliographies, statistical data, and the results of the Abt Associates survey of state and federal corrections departments. Three appendices provide supplemental information about legal issues involving prison privatization and previous studies of privately-operated, prisons conducted in New Mexico, Massachusetts, Kentucky and California.

The acting Assistant Attorney General described the Abt Associates report as being a "careful and thorough review of prior research," and praised it for presenting a "valuable framework for the additional research needed on the comparative cost and quality of private versus public prison operations."

Copies of the 200+ page report are available from the Bureau of Prisons, Office of Public Affairs, 320 First St. N.W., Washington, DC 20534, by written request.

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