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. 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.”

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. There has been a fundamental shift in our prison system from rehabilitation facilities to retribution dungeons. The public to private shift seems to embody that trend but how long ago did it start happening? Early 90s? Mid 80s? I don’t know but it doesn’t seem to show signs of reversing.

  2. add roads to the list. some things government should do and can do better than any private business.

    it’s a wonder texas hasn’t privatized their executions. cheaper by the dozen.

  3. I don’t believe in the privatization of prisons for many reasons but one in specific. A friend’s son worked in one down in Florida about ten years ago. He lasted maybe a year. Besides the low pay and bad hours his biggest complaint was corruption. You see, the prisoners got to grade the guards. You would think this was a good idea right? Not so much. The guards became the prisoners puppies. The ones who moved up the chain of command were the ones who stayed out of the way and brought in the contraband. The rest were short timers who couldn’t take it anymore. Ponder on that thought for a while.

  4. Don’t forget that many states have also privatized their non-incarceration, court ordered punishments like probation offices.

  5. But those private prisons have funneled billions from the public pocket to the off-shore accounts of some of the 1%. How can you be against that?

  6. Prison’s for profit equals Slave Labor. And take a guess at who the main investors in these prisons are— Judges and Sheriffs. Our prisons are filled to capacity now. More prisoners = more money, maximum sentences will become the norm, quota’s for arrests will be rewarded (railroading innocent people early release for good behavior will be a thing of the past, and corporation reep the benefits of Slave Labor. Voucher schools are corporate owned too! Off topic but

  7. If we can have private prisons, why not have private courts? They’d be a lot more efficient and then we might actually get some decent judges.

  8. No activity that is a function of government should be turned over to private for profit enterprise whether it is prisons, roads and bridges or schools. Any government official or politician who accepts the corporate line that it will both save money and result in better service is either willfully blind to the truth or on the take.

    I think the a similar argument can be made for health care. Although not a core government function we now have proof that government does a better, cheaper job of providing health care than the private section because Medicare is actually set up to see that care is provided rather than making sure it isn’t.

    There is a new an somewhat even more basic human need that corporations are eying with much anticipation: water. Exxon and the rest will destroy the clean watere supply and then other corporations will offer to clean it up and sell it back to us. We need to get in front of this disaster.

    When for profit companies get involved with basics needs and the government is so paralyzed when it comes to regulation and accountability the damage done to humans is substantial.

    Thanks Mike for another important post.

    By the way Dredd, what happened to the indictment of Cheney?

  9. Here in California, the great majority of prisons and jails are government owned, operated and staffed, but it has not been a panacea. (I realize that the private sector might be just as bad or worse.) Regarding state prisons, we have had a very strong prison guards union. The county jails are run by the county sherriffs dept. My impression is that state prison guards are overcompensated, and that at both the state and county level, many prisoners are not treated humanely, and there is little effective oversight or discipline of wrongdoing prison guards or sherriffs’ deputies. There has been much litigation over the abuse of prisoners, not infrequently won by prisoners, especially at the state level. Even more important than the gov’t brutality vs. capitalist exploitation controversy is that there is not a sufficiently human or humane relationship between the captors and the prisoners. The big prison facilities should be broken up into many small ones where people will be more likely to develop human relationships with one another and there will be a tendency for treatment to be more humanitarian, and where it will be more difficult to hide abuses.

  10. I generally am one of those people who does not like state control of things but LE and prisons are areas the gov’t must maintain.

    The complaints about high costs or inefficientcies can be corrected by bringing in managers, employed by the state, who have talent that can correct these shortcomings through better governance of the prisons/jails. There is really few statutory mandates that cause these institutions to operate at more cost if than if they were in private hands. The agency can be made to operate efficiently just like any organization.

    All one needs to do is compare private security with professional law enforcement of the state. Wages and subsequently talent tend in general to be very poor in private security (though there are very, very few exceptions to this mostly in the executive protection level) . A couple towns twenty years ago, I don’t remember when or where) eliminated their police forces and hired security guards to look after the town. All felony or serious crimes were handed off to a sheriff’s office. It was a disaster and it wasn’t repeated.

    Plus, there is a matter of authority. Civilians who are not commissioned LEOs cannot enforce the laws of the state, though there are citizens arrest powers in somce states, but it is terribly inadequate. The burden this situation provides with private prisons is that the local authorities now have to respond to investigate every crime that happens in these areas. When this becomes a headache for the private prison some things are not enforced.

    Now the above does not certainly address the human condition of being in / working in one of these prisons. I don’t see it as being humane for the reasons mentioned previously.

  11. Judge Perry Bowen from Southern Maryland had a system going that was something like a privatized jail, and it was actually an early prototype of the big corporate prison system we’re halfway into, nationwide, right now. Back in the late eighties it merited a local newspaper headline: “Serving Time on Judge [Perry] Bowen’s Farm.” Bowen was a tobacco farmer and had huge holdings. He was also a trial court judge in an area where most Black men arrested had no money for private lawyers and they’d get a public defender. Each PD would be representing six or eight defendants on any day in court and Judge Bowen would hear their plea’s — all nolo or guilty, of course. Minor charges. Six month sentences. But during tobacco picking season, the sentencing’s all went like this:

    “Do you have any experience picking tobacco?”
    Yes, Your Honor.
    “Six months.”


    “Do you have any experience picking tobacco?”
    No, Your Honor.
    “Well you’re going to get some. Six months.”

    And each morning, two big pick up trucks would stop by the jailhouse at 5:30 a.m. and pick up all the prisoners and drive them out to Judge Bowen’s farm. They’d pick tobacco all day and then get returned to the jail for the taxpayers to pay for their food and housing and other upkeep.

    He didn’t even have to own the jail.

  12. Prison for profit is as bad as national defense for profit, social services for profit or environmental protection for profit. Just like the banksters, these entities feel that fines are simply a part of doing business. HSBC paid a fine for drug money laundering. As long as government plays the part of corporate crony where no one goes to jail for contractual misdeeds and criminal acts, then these abuses will continue unimpeded. Fascism is not pretty and the US is heading in that disturbed direction.

  13. The video I posted above shows Dick Cheney’s ownership in private prison corporations.

    More specifically, the very prison involved in this Mike S post.

    Even though he tried to hide his involvement with cover corporations.

  14. As I have long said, there are some functions we, as citizens, do not want to be done for a profit. The essence of any for-profit company is reducing costs and increasing profits. “Efficiency” is not the only possible route to those goals, there are immoral, illegal, and corner cutting routes as well, there are routes that employ deception, corruption, fraud, and brutality.

    Situations (like prisons, health care, health insurance, police involvement, fire fighters, military operations) where people’s lives and futures are in the balance are precisely the cases in which for-profit operation should be prohibited, because a profit motive poses an inevitable conflict of interests.

    Leave the for-profit capitalism to the cases where people have a real choice and can plausibly walk away from a deal without dying or losing everything.

  15. Privatized prisons under the supervision of the government? Think Abu Ghraib. You don’t have to think much further than that.

  16. Knowing how this world works, I would bet an inspection of a private prison by a govt. agency woulkd be more likely be honest than the govt. inspecting itself vis a vis prisons.

  17. This appears to be a possible situation where state confiscation of private property (the prison) seems appropriate. They are not running it correctly, and additional crimes are being done on the property as a result.

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