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Easing California’s Prison Crisis via Private Prisons is a Bad Idea

California Governor Jerry Brown has a solution to the overcrowding crisis within the California prison system: sweep it under the rug by sending prisoners to private prisons and empty beds in local jails.  According to a report in the Huffington Post this would initially cost $315 million but then $700 million over the next two years.  His reason? He fears that otherwise too many “dangerous felons” would be released.  The court order says about 46,000 prisoners need to be released. Just in the past two years California has seen a decrease in the prison population of 30,000 (19%), according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  However, sending them to private prisons both in California and other states is a bad idea. 

The development of private prisons represents a world where money rules and profit is the name of the game.  The well-being of society, the rehabilitation of prisoners, and savings to taxpayers are only minor concerns by comparison.

A key part of the development of private prisons is the prevailing hatred of the government and the belief that the free market can do better.  Although distrust of government dates back to the early years of the country, it really took off during the Reagan Administration.  Ronald Reagan summed it up nicely when he said in 1981 that “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” What he and others with similar views keep forgetting to mention is that government is a problem “unless it can benefit big business,” which in fact it has done with much regularity for more than 100 years. One of the ironies of free market worshipers is that they actually want the government to help them out whenever possible.  Without a doubt private prison operators like the government.  Studies documenting this are numerous (See books by Dean Baker and David Johnson.). 

The movement toward privatization stems from the recent trends toward greater and greater corporate power.  This increased power is linked to the emergence of neoliberalism. According to one study, some of the key tenants of this ideology include: (1) The rule of the market (including the “trickle down” theory and the break-up of unions); (2) Reducing public expenditure for social services, such as health and education (many still want to privatize social security); (3) Deregulation; (4) Privatization of public enterprises; (5) Shifting the idea of seeking what’s good for the public to “individualism and individual responsibility.” Through privatization, states can get around voter resistance to prison construction bonds by having private corporations build the prison, who then turn around and send a huge bill to the state and thus taxpayers.  This represents a classic case of “socializing the costs and privatizing the benefits.”   

Speaking of “free markets,” one recent study by Leighton and Selman called Punishment for Sale shows, corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) do not really believe in a truly “free market” since they constantly seek ways of using taxpayer money to increase their profits. They have constantly received billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies from the public.  Indeed, as this study shows, a large proportion of the prisons operated by CCA and similar companies were subsidized to the tune of about 70% or more. 

What amazes me more than anything else is the amount of money extracted from the states that pay these companies to build and/or operate these prisons. Leighton and Selman compared the top salary and wage earners in public departments of corrections with those of three major private corporations (CCA, GEO and Cornell).  Each of the CEO’s earned in excess of $1 million, while the salaries of the directors of state prisons earned from about $128,000 to $225,000.  In most of the prisons run by private corporations there were fewer prisoners and a lower budget than for state prisons. 

The privatization of prisons has seen a lot of failures – in particular the failure to save taxpayers money.  Examples are numerous.  In one of my books I document many of these examples, such as a prison operated by Wackenhut in Holly Springs, Mississippi that ran into trouble finding prisoners to fill about 130 beds.  In fact, the state found itself with 2,000 more beds than prisoners!  Similarly, South Carolina found itself with more than 1,000 empty beds in a prison operated by Wackenhut.  In North Las Vegas, a youth correctional center was operated by two different private prison operators and when they could not fill enough beds it was turned over to the state of Nevada. 

Perhaps the worst example of the failure of privatization involved two juvenile court judges in Pennsylvania who sent youth to private juvenile detention centers, owned by Mid Atlantic Youth Services Corp.  The two judges received more than $2.6 million in kickbacks during a five-year period.  Most of the youth committed the kinds of offenses that would rarely earn a sentence to a correctional facility. 

Finally, in Mississippi, a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center resulted in the removal of boys from a prison run by the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut).  The lawsuit had focused on

“the routine practice of GEO staffers peddling drugs to teenagers in their custody, subjecting them to brutal beatings, sexual exploitation and solitary confinement, and failing to protect them from violence at the hands of older, predatory prisoners. One youth suffered permanent brain damage as a result of an attack in which GEO staffers were complicit.”

Governor Brown would be well advised to seek another solution to California’s prison crisis.  There are plenty of alternatives to incarceration in existence in this state.

Keywords: prisons, privatization, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Realignment, Correctional Institutions

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