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Audit Determines Georgia’s State Prisons More Cost Effective than Private Prisons

by David M. Reutter

A legislative audit, released in December 2018, concluded that it costs Georgia about 10 percent more to house comparable prisoners in private prisons than in state-run facilities. The audit, completed as part of a study on criminal justice reforms, found that it costs $44.56 per diem for prisoners housed in state prisons compared to $49.07 per diem at private prisons.

The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) has an average population of about 50,000 prisoners and an annual budget of around $1.2 billion. The state pays GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) nearly $140 million a year to house about 15 percent of its prison population – some 7,800 prisoners – at four privately-operated prisons: the Coffee County Correctional Facility, Jenkins Correctional Facility, Wheeler Correctional Facility and Riverbend Correctional Facility.

The audit found that across all categories of prisoners, the GDOC spends an average of $65.58 per diem when medical and maximum-security units are included. The auditors screened for  prisoners’ gender, facility size and risk classification in private and state prisons when making a comparative analysis of housing costs.

Georgia House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England said he wanted to examine the data to determine if the comparison included state prison employee pensions before reaching a conclusion as to whether it is more cost efficient to expand state prisons or spend more on private prisons. The Appropriations Committee had requested the audit.

GEO Group said in a statement: “Over the past three years, we’ve invested additional financial resources to improve offender rehabilitation services and outcomes which are not included in our per diem rate, therefore, we believe our cost would be lower if the auditors had compared all of the services and programs we offer at the Riverbend Correctional Facility.”

The company added, “We hope to have a meeting with the auditors sometime early next year to better understand their methodology and analysis and to provide them additional data for inclusion in future studies.”

Both GEO and CoreCivic are politically active in Georgia. According to campaign finance records, the companies donated more than $174,000 to state candidates and political action committees in 2017 and 2018.

The decision on whether to expand private or state prisons will be of importance in the near future, as the audit found that while Georgia’s prison population has slowed due to criminal justice reforms, it is still expected to rise by more than 1,200 prisoners over the next five years. 

“Had we not been doing criminal justice reform, that 1,200 number would probably be 7,500 or so,” Rep. England observed. “We do stuff all the time and never really look at what the impact is.” 

In February 2019, a number of state lawmakers filed a bill, HB 403, that would prohibit private prisons, jails and other detention centers from operating in Georgia. Existing contracts would not be affected but could not be renewed when they expire. No action has been taken on the proposed legislation. 

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Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, usnews.com, allongeorgia.com