Our Prison Profiteers

The New York Times
August 3, 1990

They run the new correctional ”hotels,” and some of their daily rates would make Leona Helmsley blush.

Across the country, local sheriffs are turning brisk profits as suppliers of precious cell space to desperate prisons. These cell owners charge whatever the market will bear, and today the market will bear a lot.

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia are under court order to reduce overcrowding. Their only alternative to early release is to rent cells from other prisons. Fees are set by a little-known market, with each jail offering bids that are often well above cost.

Already, more than 10 percent of the nation’s prison population is housed in rental cells. The Federal Government pays rental fees for more than 12,000 prisoners a year. Seventeen states account for an added 12,000 displaced prisoners. One state, Louisiana, holds more than 25 percent of its prison population in rented space in local jails.

Each year, millions of dollars go to the local sheriffs who run those jails, with little or no reporting on how the money is spent. Proceeds from rentals account for between 50 and 70 percent of some local jail budgets. It is no surprise that some sheriffs have secretly opposed new prison construction because of its threat to their ”captive” market share.

A Federal judge recently ordered Louisiana officials to stop renting cells to the District of Columbia. Local sheriffs had been holding space for ”paying” prisoners while state and local jails were releasing thousands early because of overcrowding. The average cost of housing a Louisiana prisoner is $22 a day, but local sheriffs can get twice that amount on the out-of-state rental market.

In the 1990’s, most states will double the number of prisoners in rentals, even if current proposals for construction are actually accomplished. The District. government has exhausted all regional rentals and is currently sending prisoners to Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee and Washington State. The District pays $29 million a year for these cells – a premium price that can be as much as $10 a day per prisoner over maintenance costs. For the $47.50 a day it pays to rent cells in Illinois, the District could house its prisoners in a Holiday Inn.

Fiscal extravagance is not the only problem with rental cells. They are subject to little regulation or supervision. Most local jails were meant to house short-term prisoners and are not equipped for long-term incarceration. One Louisiana sheriff told a court he had no extra space for a jail library even as he actively sought additional prisoners for profit.

At the current rate of prison growth, it is wholly unrealistic to think we can build enough prisons to house all inmates. Even the record prison construction of the 1980’s moved at a glacial pace compared to the rising prison population. In 1989, prison cell space increased by 5.5 percent, but the states’ prison population rose 7.4 percent.

Prison officials could learn a lot from a 10-minute conversation with any New York renter. The answer cannot be simply to rent or build more room into the system; prisons must make efficient use of limited space. There are tens of thousands of prisoners over 65 years of age, many older than 80. By 2001, there will be 125,000 older prisoners. These are the broken men and women of another era who occupy space that should house younger, more dangerous prisoners.

Many of these low-risk prisoners could be easily placed into alternative incarceration. Most states spend an average of $65 a day on housing an inmate. Electronic bracelets can monitor a prisoner at home for roughly $8 a day. Parole supervision costs an average of 99 cents a day. Unfortunately, sheriffs are using profit, not the risk a prisoner poses to society, as the criterion for allocating cell space. The result can be the release from local jails of dangerous prisoners, who go on to commit new offenses, at an average cost to the judicial system of $340,000 a case.

So prison systems continue to feed the exorbitant rental market. The only question is: Can they continue? California’s citizens recently sent prison tax proposals to a resounding defeat, and the reaction of politicians around the country can only be described as Pavlovian. They will continue to appropriate emergency funds to carry the system over year by year rather than face public wrath about taxes. Meanwhile, rental fees are rising, and every minute four new prisoners line up for cells. Jonathan Turley is associate professor of law and director of the project for older prisoners, at Tulane University in New Orleans.