Timothy B. Ray: Florida’s Private Prison Fiasco
Now that Gov. Rick Scott’s efforts to place convicts in privately operated prisons to save money have been blocked by court action, we have time to point out that privatization of corrections actually may not save money.
This is the conclusion of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has studied crime and punishment over many decades. Private corrections also may have other bad consequences in addition to the lack of savings.
Let’s first look at costs:
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has pointed out that private prison companies have failed to save money when confining very dangerous criminals. He attributes this failure to the tendency of these companies to classify these very dangerous criminals as less dangerous than they really are in order to have them placed in their private, low security, facilities. But then they discover that they cannot manage these criminals after all, and turn them back over to the state prisons.
Also reporting on the Arizona experience, Richard A. Oppel Jr. wrote in the New York Times on May 18 that private prisons have turned convicts over to state facilities because they turned out to be mentally or physically ill, even though the private companies had signed contracts with the state agreeing to keep prisoners regardless of changes in their health status.
Arizona state Rep. Chad Campbell said “It’s always cherry picking. They leave the most expensive prisoners with the taxpayers and take the easy prisoners.”
Russ Van Vleet, co-author of a study by the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center stated “There is a perspective out there that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly, but there really isn’t much (data) out there that says that’s correct.”
A far worse disadvantage of privatizing corrections is the effect that it has on our system of criminal justice itself. Large private corrections corporations, including GEO Group Inc. and CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) make large contributions to powerful organizations (e.g. American Legislative Exchange Council) which lobby hard for laws to force the courts to sentence even more defendants to longer prison terms and to allocate even more money to corrections.
The U.S. already has a far larger proportion of its population behind bars than any other country in the world. But our very high crime rates continue, with occasional temporary spikes and dips. Our present system increases rather than decreases recidivism.
If our governor is permitted to commit more of our tax dollars to the failed economy of private corrections — which leads to new laws that cause more people to be locked up and more prisons to be built to house them — then we are getting nowhere while the private corrections corporations are getting rich at our expense.
The most disastrous result of all is the lengthy confinement of hundreds of thousands of men and women; depriving their children of real family life and preventing those who are confined from being able to receive training for the new skills that employers continue to require. Therefore, they will be more likely to drift back into crime because they have been kept out of the job market too long to be employable.
We are failing as a society if we are not willing to pay for whatever it takes to help those of our citizens who have not learned to read, write, or cope with anger in order to be prepared to their eventual discharges. We surely cannot keep all of them locked up until they die of old age; as Angola Prison, in Louisiana, is already doing because their courts gave black men very long sentences fifty years ago.
When our costs per prison bed evolve into cost per nursing home bed, our costs will triple, or worse. Louisiana is stuck with the cost. We can still think ahead. Only fools refuse to do so.
Timothy B. Ray lives in Gainesville.