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.

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.''

Advocates of private prisons contend that government rules make it impossible for the government to get good prices on supplies and that the lifetime contracts of many public employees provide job security and benefits that are not linked to performance, giving very little incentive to improve facilities or try to excel on the job.

``Government bureaucracy causes expensive delays, which end up costing people money,'' says Peggy Wilson of the Correction Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private company that builds and operates penal institutions in the US.

``It would take so long to get an idea into operation that somewhere along the line it would fall through the cracks,'' says John Robinson, faculty administrator at the Shelby Training Center and Tall Trees, both in Shelby County, Tenn. These prisons are owned by the CCA, where Mr. Robinson says he has ``the authority to implement [his] ideas right away.''

Private companies, says Robinson, can bid more quickly and more competitively for supplies during and after construction. And they can build with the facility's specific needs in mind. ``There's no fat in our system,'' he says.

``It's a matter of injecting an element of competition into an otherwise monopolized area,'' explains Dr. Charles Logan, a visiting fellow studying privatization at the National Institute of Justice.

Kenneth Turner, the Tennessee juvenile court judge who was responsible for hiring Nashville-based CCA to build the two Shelby County juvenile facilities, praises the speed with which they were constructed and the efficiency with which they have been managed.

``We've been able to keep our kids in our home county,'' he says, referring to prisoners. ``They wouldn't be able to interact with their families if we sent them 200 miles away.''

A recent report by the AFSCME, ``Seeking Profit in Punishment: The Private Management of Correctional Institutions,'' shows that major corrections corporations attract people with extensive experience in the area.

But of the few studies that have been done, none demonstrate that privately run facilities save the state a substantial amount of money. The American Correctional Association studied a training school for juvenile delinquents in Okeechobee, Fla., before and after it had been turned over to the Eckerd Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation. It could find no significant difference in costs.

``In some ways they were running it better,'' Dr. Levinson of the correctional association notes, ``in some ways worse.''

After a Pennsylvania task force investigated private prisons this year, it recommended extending the state's existing ban against privatizing prisons or jails, having found no major cost difference.

At the Immigration and Naturalization Service's four contracted detention centers in Houston, spokesman Duke Austin has not seen ``any great differences in efficiency,'' either.

To some, this sort of observation is insufficient and premature, but opponents feel it strengthens their argument against removing the duty of administering justice from states.

``The authority to coerce and even kill incarcerated citizens should never be delegated to contractually deputized individuals,'' Professor DiIulio says.

``We need to prevent an increasing demand for cells, not take funds away from police and other services,'' says Michael Smith, executive director at New York's Vera Institute, ``and I don't know why a private company wouldn't try to stimulate greater demand for its prisons.''

Some states have banned privatized prisons altogether, while others, like Tennessee - concerned about security and legal problems - have built stringent standards into their legislation.

``No company has been able to meet those standards yet,'' says Mr. Clemens of the AFSCME.

Even if these companies are capable of maintaining prison environments, some opponents argue, privatization does not get at the core of the problem: inmates accused of dangerous crimes in pretrial detention. These constitute about 80 percent of the jail population, according to the Justice Department.

Hard-core prisoners are crowding out those convicted of lesser crimes, meaning that relatively few low-security inmates are left in the jails to work as trusties. As of 1984 (according to a study conducted every five years), of the 382,000 inmates held in 694 prisons, 33 percent were in maximum security and 45 percent in medium security.

With solutions as scarce and conditions as bad as they are now, ``there's a good chance that [privatization] is going to happen in a big way,'' says McDonald at the Vera Institute.

Profit motive worries critics of privatized corrections

Handing over the burdened prison system to those who must cut costs to boost profits could pull out the wheat along with the tares, many criminal-justice officials say.

Privatization could ``overtake the restitution and rehabilitation objective,'' says Michael Smith, executive director at the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based research group.

Because the public sector has not been very good at defining what kind of a service corrections is, says Mr. Smith, ``it won't be able to form explicit contracts'' with private companies.

``There's a conflict between a correctional system that's supposed to prepare people to go back into society ... and a system that has to maintain full capacity,'' says Russell Clemens, a labor economist at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. ``They're not going to make any money if beds are empty.''

Profit motives could lead, they say, to poor business practices: hiring fewer and poorly trained employees, serving inferior food, or cutting the hours that the gym, library, or other prison facilities are open.

But proponents of privatization contend that recidivism rates are already as high as 70 percent. Correction Corporation of America - the largest private penal corporation in the country - and other privatization companies believe they can lower this rate, or at least do no worse.

The government is ``already spending $20,000 a year just to keep them in there,'' says Thomas Albrecht at the National Institute of Justice, a Washington-based research group, ``and it doesn't make sense to continue running an operation like that.''

While CCA says contracts will prevent abuses as well as lawsuits, instances of abuse by other companies have fueled opponents' arguments that only the state should be allowed to incarcerate its citizens.

In Pennsylvania, a privately operated prison went bankrupt after a judge ordered it to return 55 out-of-state prisoners brought in to make a profit. And in Houston, an illegal alien suspected of trying to flee was shot and killed by guards.

``Prisons are so easy to hide things in,'' says Michael Keating, a criminal lawyer at Tillinghast, Collins & Graham in Providence, R.I. ``We've already seen that in the public sector. In the private sector, that temptation will be greater,'' Mr. says Keating, who monitors the progress of prisons involved in litigation.

``When they're no longer new and exotic ... when people are no longer watching them intently, how do you make sure private companies provide what they're supposed to?''

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