Privatized Prisons a Bad Idea Gets Worse

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

HK_Central_Statue_Square_Legislative_Council_Building_n_Themis_sI don’t usually hold with simplified solutions to certain problems we all face but one comes to mind based on an article I read just now. A reasonable person should vote against any, I mean ANY, politician who has done, or is willing to do anything positive towards continuing the practice of privatizing the prison system on any level of government. From a standpoint of our Constitution I believe that the concept violates it, in spirit, if not in fact. From a fiscal point of view I believe that there is no cost effectiveness in privatizing a prison system. From an ethical position I believe that punishment by our criminal justice system is a government function and can not be given to private contractors without abuses coming. Finally, from a humane standpoint I believe that running a prison on a for-profit basis will never live up to the standards of humane treatment even the worst of prisoners deserve. The institution of a private prison system is a call for corruption just as in the case of the two Pennsylvania Judges convicted of wrongly accepting bribes to sentence minors to a private prison run for minors. This was the infamous “Kids for Cash” case which resulted in prison for these venal, loathsome jurists. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kids_for_cash_scandal I believe that cases and corruption such as this are the inevitable result of prison privatization and I believe that we are going to see more and more of it today.

The article which appears in today’s Huffington Post is titled: Lake Erie Correctional Institution, Ohio Private Prison, Faces Concerns About “Unacceptable” Conditions”. The issues discussed in this brief article highlight all that I think is wrong about maintaining a privatized prison system and about the abuses that spring naturally from the concept. The article even touches on why the initial cost benefit put forth by private companies and by the politicians they convince to back their idea, is unreal and actually leads to greater expense on borne by the government and its citizens.

“When a private prison corporation paid Ohio $72.7 million in 2011 to purchase one of the state’s facilities, the company touted the deal as a “groundbreaking” move that would serve as a model for other states looking to cut costs. But in the year since Corrections Corporation of America took over the 1,700-bed Lake Erie Correctional Institution, state audits have found patterns of inadequate staffing, delays in medical treatment and “unacceptable living conditions” inside the prison — including inmates lacking access to running water and toilets. The state docked the company nearly $500,000 in pay because of the violations.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/02/lake-erie-correctional-institution_n_2599428.html

The practice of selling off State Institutions and their functions is the result of two trends that have overcome our nation’s politics since 1980. The first is that being for taxation has become the death knell for many politicians caught in the vice-like jaws of the “anti-taxation” movement led today by Grover Norquist. Because of this “anti-tax” movement many State and Local governments starved for cash to provided needed services opt for a short term cash infusion, rather than raising taxes. It is invariably a “quick fix” rather than viable long-term solution.

The companion trend is the belief that government can’t compare in efficiency to “private industry”. This second belief is actually ridiculous on its face simply because of this salient fact. The ultimate goal of any corporation in capitalism is to make a profit. Therefore if we posit certain minimum expenses for any operation, those expenses must be raised by enough of a profit margin to make the enterprise worthwhile. Government institutions do not by their nature need to be profitable and thus logically cost less to operate. Government workers are also “cheaper” than private employees. This example is made clear I the fact that Medicare operating expenses are around 3%, while the operating expenses of private insurance companies run about 15% to 20%, for providing a comparable service.

“In addition, a major uptick in crime near the private prison has burdened the small town of Conneaut, Ohio, with police there making a series of recent arrests related to attempts to smuggle drugs and alcohol into the facility. Officers responded to 229 calls related to the prison last year, nearly four times as many as the previous five years combined, according to the city’s crime data. “We understand that it’s a private entity now, and that it’s for-profit, but nothing can come at the expense of the safety and security of our citizens,” said Conneaut Councilman Neil LaRusch, who recently sent a letter to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s office”

The “uptick” in crime comes about because this prison is understaffed and what staff they have are not capable of providing a similar level of prison security, to that provided when the prison was run by the state. This is a cost that was unanticipated in the initial sale and the addition of this cost makes the enterprise less cost effective than originally stated.

 “But in the year since Corrections Corporation of America took over the 1,700-bed Lake Erie Correctional Institution, state audits have found patterns of inadequate staffing, delays in medical treatment and “unacceptable living conditions” inside the prison — including inmates lacking access to running water and toilets. The state docked the company nearly $500,000 in pay because of the violations.”

Should we be surprised that a State audit found enough of a problem to “dock” the company $500,000 for not fulfilling the terms of its contractual commitments? This seems no surprise to me in these days where a company’s stock market value goes up every time they lay off staff. That some of these “layoffs” have eventually resulted in destroying the company makes little difference to the executives who perform them ad then reap huge bonuses even as the company’s turn “belly up”. Look again at the career of Mitt Romney, for proof.

“Private prison companies such as CCA have pushed for a growing share of the nation’s inmate population, promising to save states and the federal government money by managing their prison systems. Yet criminal justice experts say the experience in and around the Lake Erie prison amounts to a cautionary tale for other states considering whether to hand over

their own facilities to private corporations. “This is not a bargain for the states,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and criminal justice expert at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs. “The longer the contracts are, the more likely you are to give rise to poor conditions and problems. It gives the states very little leverage to demand improvements.”

Like many other areas of privatization of government function to many who come from a political view that opposes government running anything, these sell offs seem like a good idea at the time but after given a chance to operate we see more and more instances of the “promise of service” being lost in a failure to deliver that service.

“For its purchase price, CCA obtained not only the prison but a 20-year management contract to house inmates for the state and an initial guaranteed 90 percent occupancy rate. (The state has the option of renegotiating the occupancy rate down the line.)”

A guaranteed occupancy rate of 90% means the State has to come up with enough prisoners to fulfill the terms of the contract, or else have to pay the same amount as if the prison was full. This is exactly the situation that led to the “Kid for Cash” case I cited above, since the Judges were taking bonus pay from the prison company for every kid they sentenced. To me I can see this becoming a widespread practice and indeed we are seeing it, as our country has the highest imprisonment rate of any industrialized nation in the world, including Russia and China.

“Critics argue that the Lake Erie facility offers a textbook example of the problems that can arise from prison privatization: high rates of staff turnover, problems in administering health care and poor physical conditions.

 “CCA has positioned this as a seamless transition,” said Mike Brickner, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “It’s been anything but that from the very beginning.”

 A September state audit found that inmates being disciplined in segregation at the prison were using plastic containers and bags as a makeshift restroom, in the absence of working toilets and running water.”

Now I know that some readers of this blog feel that prisoners should not live a “posh” existence while incarcerated. No doubt they feel that this is rehabilitative punishment, or merely treating the victimizers to the discomfit of their victims. To my mind though this is inhumane treatment that should not represent what this country is about. Imagine yourself being forced to use plastic containers and bags when performing your daily ablutions?

 “Over the past year, the state of Ohio has assessed almost $500,000 in penalties on CCA related to the Lake Erie prison, deducting $318,000 for staff vacancies and an additional $181,000 in damages for not adhering to its contract. Staffing was a persistent problem at the facility, according to state records. CCA did not fill several important positions, including a required vocational instructor and nurse practitioner. Other breaches highlighted in the September audit included problems with medical care and concerns about security:

 Inmates requesting to be seen by a nurse were not seen within 48 hours

 Doctors’ appointments were usually delayed, and often there were no follow-ups

 Staff wasn’t following the proper procedures for chronically ill inmates, including those with diabetes and AIDS

 Inmates were triple-bunked, with some sleeping on mattresses on cell floors

 “Some staff expressed safety concerns due to low staffing numbers and not having enough coverage.”

For more detail about this specific issue please read the entire linked article. I think that the entire concept of privatizing State functions is misguided. I spent more than a few years as an Agency Chief Contracting Officer (Director of Contracts) for a large NYC sub-Agency. I also was a Director of Budget for the same Agency for another number of years. My duties included sitting on the panel that decided whether or not to accept a given contract. Because of the era, the 90’s, “contracting out”, or privatizing City Services was a big deal. Much of what I saw and personally would not sanction were proposed contracts for City services that were actually more of a budgetary drain than the service they were replacing and which were being proposed in violation of NYC’s own laws governing awarding City contracts.

A government should assume basic responsibilities in administering its criminal justice system. If those convicted of crimes are to be imprisoned as punishment then it is important that the government manages the jails and prisons. To put this important government function into the hands of corporation’s whose sole motivation is to make profit then it is inevitable that abuses will occur and corruption will ensue.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.

29 thoughts on “Privatized Prisons a Bad Idea Gets Worse

  1. What Tony said. We should also hang our heads in shame that America has the highest number of prisoners per capita of any country in the world by a long shot. Land of the free? Hardly. The Japanese jurists have the right idea about penology. They view prison as a last resort rather than a first resort because they understand what prisons are even under the most humane administration: college for criminals. Great job, Mike, and on a subject you know is a pet peeve of mine.

  2. Hmmm, drugs getting into the prison all the time, and we as a nation pretend that the war on drugs is effective among the general population. We cant stop people in prison from getting drugs and we think we can stop the general public from doing so? That’s absurd. ALso, I can see state lawmakers keeping these draconian drug laws in order to fulfill the contract of 90% occupancy in these prisons. Private prisons support the drug war because without it, there profit margins go down and their ability to buy Mercedes and Gulfstream jets for their top executives goes away. We need to support organizations like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws and the medical marijuana policy project. End the drug war and end the profit padding by these vultures.

  3. Mark Collins,

    Thank you for your two great links. I subscribe to Truthout, but I missed those two. They are right o point and enhance the blog I wrote.

    “End the drug war and end the profit padding by these vultures.”

    Jerome McCollum,

    I agree with you completely, good comment.

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