Sparks fly over private vs public prisons

By Christian Bourge
UPI Think Tank Correspondent
Published 2/20/2002 7:42 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Privately run prisons produce results equal to or better than publicly run correctional institutions and at a lower cost, according to a recent study from a Los Angeles think tank. The addition of free-market dynamics into the traditionally government-run system has spurred public prison facilities to greater efficiency, the report contends.

"The bottom line with any properly done privatization deal is that quality is not compromised, [it] usually is enhanced, and cost is at the very least usually contained, though typically the cost savings are great," Geoffrey F. Segal, co-author of the report, told United Press International. "However, there has to be a strong monitoring system interlaced with performance measures in place to make sure the government is getting its money's worth."

In "Weighing the Watchmen: Evaluating the Costs and Benefits of Outsourcing Correctional Services," published by the libertarian Reason Public Policy Institute, Adrian Moore, executive director of the institute and Segal, director of privatization and government reform policy at RPPI, argue that prison privatization has grown from a "simple way to cut the budget" into a "complex policy tool" that public officials use to "harness more dynamic results from private partners."

Proponents of privatization contend that the partial privatization of the U.S. prison system has lead to better-run facilities that save money over traditional publicly run institutions, while also encouraging innovation. Opponents contend that privatization advocates have glossed over shortcomings and that overall, private facilities have proved to be no more cost effective, or higher-performing, than public prisons.

Though state-level interest in prison privatization has recently waned as states cut back on the number of prison beds in response to reduced need after years of increasing demand, privatization at the federal level is reportedly on the rise as a result of increasing need. Three potential contracts for new federal facilities are up for grabs this year, and an additional two are said to be in the works by 2003.

In their analysis, Segal and Moore examined 28 government and institutional studies comparing public and private facilities and found that 22 of the private prisons demonstrated significant cost savings. Overall, the researchers estimated cost savings at between five and 15 percent over comparable public institutions.

They also found that private correctional facilities fared well against government-run prisons "in almost every measure" of administrative quality, including independent accreditation, contract terminations and renewals, and the extent of court orders and litigation by prisoners.

They concluded that there is "clear and significant evidence including a wide range of quality comparison studies that private facilities provide at least the level of service that government run facilities do."

Criminal justice policy analyst and privatization critic Judith Greene, however, said RPPI ignored significant data showing that private prisons are more dangerous for both inmates and prison workers. Though security dangers are endemic to the penal system, cost-cutting at private facilities aimed at maximizing profits can exacerbate these problems, she says.

"It is structural throughout the industry and goes directly to the twin effort to cut costs and produce a higher profit," said Greene.

Greene's negative view of prison privatization stems from research conducted under fellowships from the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation -- which counts among its aims "to challenge the intrusion of the marketplace into inappropriate areas" -- and the Institute on Criminal Justice of the University of Minnesota Law School. She also researched criminal justice issues for the RAND Corporation, and is a consultant for Human Rights Watch.

In her critique of the RPPI paper, she cited instances of riots, guard corruption, prisoner escapes and murder linked to improper management in private facilities. She also referenced data that indicates that on average there are higher rates of homicide, riots and escapes at private facilities nationwide.

Though Greene acknowledged that in some instances privatization has produced lower-cost facilities, she said this often has been achieved at the expense of performance.

For example, she referenced a study cited in the RPPI report, but which she believes did not receive a proper examination from Segal and Moore. The study, released last year by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, examined self-reported data from the private prison industry and the U.S. Department of Justice. In it, Justice Department analysts found a 50 percent higher rate of assaults by inmates on staff in private prisons, as well as a 65 percent higher rate of assaults on other inmates.

Greene said these security numbers alone, which are a "key indicator of performance," raise questions about the validity of RPPI's findings of equal or superior performance in private prisons.

"I would never argue that our public prison system is free of these problems or anywhere near where it should be performing," said Greene. "But if you measure the two systems, these types of problems are simply higher on the private side than on the public side."

According to Harry Hatry, director of the Urban Institute's public management program, private management companies can effectively run [lower-security] prisons, but have been less effective in providing adequate results at maximum-security facilities.

"The advantage of the private sector is that they can reduce costs," said Hatry. "In general they have, however, tended to be better with the easier criminals. With maximum security prisons it has been a different issue."

Greene said that one of the key reasons for the higher incidences of such problems is that in an effort to keep labor costs low, private facilities offer lower pay and fewer benefits to guards, compared to state or federally run prisons. She said this results in a national turnover rate three times higher in the private sector, typically resulting in higher numbers of less-experienced guards who have received "far less training."

Lower pay, less job security, and the belief that security remains a problem are major reasons why prison guards at existing public facilities so ardently oppose privatization, and have effectively blocked such efforts in states like California, where their unions hold strong political sway.

But Segal argued that variations in staffing levels at private facilities typically occur at the administrative level, not among line officers. He did, however, acknowledge a greater reliance on monitoring technologies that can require fewer guards. He characterized this approach as an "innovative tool," using technology as any business would to maximize profit.

As to criticisms of the safety records at private prisons, Segal said problems that arise across all fronts are usually directly related to the way in which the contract with the state has been written. Often this is the result of the absence of proper performance measures or specifics in terms of what should be provided for the inmates.

"If you are going to do this, make sure you do it right," he said. "I am the first to say that privatization is not a panacea. When it is not done properly it can fail. If the contract isn't written properly, if their aren't good performance measures, if their aren't adequate monitoring systems, the government doesn't get the service equal to what they're paying."

Greene also said that what she termed the "selective citation of data" in the RPPI report ignored important research which was not supportive of their self-declared mission to promote free-market economic theory and privatization of government programs.

"One would expect that an objective study would look at both the advantages of privatization of prisons, which is argued forcefully in this document, and also at the downside," she said. "This study doesn't really address these problems."

Segal denied any misapplication of the data in the study. He said that it was analysis of objective studies that proved that private institutions provide the better bang for the buck.

"I used data from the Department of Justice, the Institute for Justice, the Criminal Justice Institute and other independent groups which says otherwise," he said. "And quality comparisons show that quality is the same if not greater."

For his part, Hatry said that picking one type of prison model over the other was impossible, because both had their place.

"I don't think there really is an answer, he said. "There are some very good government prisons as well as private ones."

Hatry, however, highlighted other risks involved with private sector management that are not found in the public realm.

For example, if a commercial prison gets into financial trouble, the issues reach far beyond just how the company will make money, and into whether it can properly deal with prisoners if they cut back in key areas like prisoner-to-guard ratio in order to meet budget, he said.

Hatry added that the some of the problems found in privately run prisons are dependent primarily upon who is managing the prison and, in the case of existing public prisons that are taken over by commercial concerns, how badly the prison was begin managed before the private concern took over.