GAO Report Critical of BOP’s Methodology for Comparing Costs Between BOP and Private Facilities
by Brandon Sample
In October of 2007, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the audit, evaluation, and investigative arm of Congress, issued a report criticizing the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) methodology for comparing the costs of housing low and minimum security offenders in private facilities as opposed to BOP-run facilities.
Proponents of private prisons argue that they are cheaper; others question whether they are really a low-cost alternative. Congress sought to help settle the dispute with a little-known provision in the Science, State, Justice, Commerce and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2006 that required the GAO to compare the costs of confining federal prisoners in BOP and private low and minimum security facilities.
However, after meeting with officials from the BOP and seven private prisons, GAO determined that it was unable to conduct a “methodologically sound” cost comparison because BOP does not collect comparable operational data from private facilities.
BOP attempted to defend its data collection practices arguing that (1) Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) do not require comparative cost-analysis and (2) imposing such a requirement on contractors “might” cause higher contract prices.
GAO agreed that FAR do not require comparative analysis. However, “without such analyses,” GAO concluded, “it is difficult to know whether BOP is deciding on the most cost-effective alternative for acquiring low and minimum security facilities to confine [prisoners], including whether to contract, build, or expand.”
Consequently, GAO recommended that the Attorney General direct the Director of the BOP to “develop a cost-effective way to collect comparable data across BOP and private law and minimum-security facilities…and design and conduct methodologically sound analyses that compare the cost of confining” prisoner in such facilities compared to other alternatives.
Not surprisingly, BOP disagreed with the GAO’s recommendation. According to the BOP, there was no point in developing data collection methods to compare the costs of confining prisoners in private facilities with other alternatives because funding for construction of new low security facilities was unexpected. Further, BOP reiterated that requiring contractors to provide comparable data would potentially increase current contract costs.
In response, GAO agreed that contract costs might increase by requiring the collection of comparable data. However, there was no way to tell, GAO concluded, what those costs were, or whether they “would outweigh the benefit of being able to determine the most cost-effective alternative for confining [prisoners] in low and minimum security facilities.”
Finally, it was inappropriate for BOP not to collect comparable data on the assumption that Congress would not provide funding for the construction of new facilities. If comparable data was collected and lower-cost alternatives were shown to exist, Congress, GAO explained, may very well choose to provide funding for the construction of new minimum and low security facilities.
Accordingly, GAO stood by its recommendation that the Attorney General direct the Director of the BOP to develop a cost-effective way of collecting comparable data between the BOP and private low and minimum security facilities. Source: GAO Report – 08-06. The report is posted on PLN’s website.
From 1996 to 2006, BOP’s budget for contract confinement has increased from $250 million to $700 million. This is in addition to immigration detention contracted by ICE.
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