The move to hand prisons over to private businesses draws flak. States resist `selling' prisons as one way to ease overcrowding
Attracted by the $7 billion spent on holding adult criminals in the United States behind bars, entrepreneurs have been trying to turn prisons into profitmaking corporations. They are cheered on by many prison officials who think the government can stand the competition.Skip to next paragraph
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But privatizing the prisons is not proceeding as smoothly as some analysts had expected.
Local corrections officers, government policymakers, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have succeeded in preventing states from contracting out their prisons. Criminal justice, unlike garbage removal and fire protection, isn't something that can be turned over to companies, they say.
Most states are ``waiting to see what happens,'' says Robert Levinson, special project director at the American Correctional Association.
What little privatization has occurred is focused on county jails, local detention centers, and juvenile institutions. So far, only one prison - a minimum-security facility in Marion County, Ky. - is owned and run completely by an outside company. But as the prison problem worsens - prisons jammed with inmates and notorious for inefficiency and crime - privatization is gaining greater appeal.
``Corrections has gone so far downhill,'' says Douglas McDonald, a sociologist at the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based research group, ``that it's easy for these companies to come in and say we can at least do as well as if not better than the states.''
Many former wardens who are now running their own corrections corporations promise that by renting cell space to the government for a fixed amount per inmate per day, they can hold down costs, shield the government from real estate and construction expenses, and avoid hiring career civil service employees. All this can be done, they contend, without compromising criminal justice.
At a rate of $17 million a day to keep prisoners behind bars, ``the cost is absolutely unbelievable,'' says Thomas Albrecht at the National Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C.
States are unwilling to raise taxes to build much-needed new prisons, Mr. McDonald says. So the offer of cheaper cell space and better conditions comes at an opportune time, when the average state prison is operating at about 115 percent of its prisoner capacity, according to the Justice Department. A barrage of lawsuits concerning inhuman living conditions and cruel and unusual punishment have resulted in court orders against 37 states to relieve crowding, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The AFSCME worries, however, that ``privatization will undermine all that's been accomplished so far'' for this union's 50,000 prison employees.
``The cuts have to come someplace,'' says Russell Clemens, a labor economist at the union, ``and our experience so far is that if they're not reducing labor costs, they're reducing the quality of food and care.''
Yet while much of America's previous experience with privatization has been ``unbelievably bleak,'' says John DiIulio, a political science professor at Princeton University, those involved with the prison issue doubt past failures will be repeated. Indeed, recent examples of privatization show marked progress.
Private companies have for many years supplied individual services to prisons and jails - from running cafeterias to hospital care. Successful work-furlough programs and halfway houses have been operated outside prison walls. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which uses contractors to run four of its 11 detention centers for illegal immigrants, says that ``contractors add some flexibility to the program.''