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Gambling with People's Lives and Taxpayer Dollars

I agree with the Houston Chronicle's Sunday article that governments are gambling with people's lives when they place people in private prisons (Private prison facilities running out of room, Demand forces governments to take a gamble on some facilities). The writer offers an excellent slice of the problems with a couple of the more notorious private prisons in Texas, including the Dickens prison/jail that has attracted national attention for its squalor. But I want to add a couple of tidbits to the article.

One thing that we're not hearing about is the effects on the Idaho system of exporting Idaho prisoners. Idaho DOC explained in their 2005 Annual report that they were selecting low-risk prisoners and moving them far from home, a process which gets more difficult the more they do it, as there are fewer prisoners to cherry-pick for the private prisons. Idaho DOC calls the result a "hardened" system within their state prisons, because the prisoners that remain in-state are the ones with disciplinary write-ups or medical/legal issues.

Plus, all these moves cost money and disrupt the ability of the Idaho DOC to provide and manage programs to get people to leave prison and not come back. Not to mention the illogic of sending people a thousand-plus miles from family and community if they are doing well and preparing for a successful re-entry. So for some Idaho prisoners, no disciplinary write-ups = no family visits.

A more rational system would actually look first at whether or not these folks need to be incarcerated, and especially how many of them would benefit from drug treatment in the community. Both Montana and Idaho are stuffing their prisons with folks who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Idaho's Understanding Growth report from 2006 explained that over 85% of their offenders have substance abuse issues. Montana's in similar boat: they reported last fall that 93% of folks in pre-release have a substance abuse problem. Investments in treatment will get us more of the results we want, and stop the relentless swing of the "revolving door" on state prisons. But instead we get higher prison budgets and less money for drug treatment in and out of prison.

And don't even get me started about the GEO Group spokesperson's coy citing of the Pew Report on prison growth earlier this year. The Pew report collected prison population projection reports from all 50 states and looked at trends and possible causes for growth. The report offered policy makers a great piece of advice: states will spend billions on more prison beds unless they get smart and put an end to the overuse of incarceration. From the report:

If states want the best results from their correctional systems over the next five years—both in terms of public safety and public spending -- how should they approach the significant prison population growth that is anticipated? That question is the chief challenge states are facing.

They are not fated to such high rates of prison growth by factors out of their control. The policy choices they make — the sentencing and release laws, programs and practices they enact and fund — are principal determinates of the size, effectiveness and cost of their corrections systems. The key is for policy makers to base their decisions on a clear understanding of the costs and benefits of incarceration — and of data-driven, evidence-based alternatives that can preserve public safety while saving much-needed tax dollars.

But instead we have states relying on private prisons as a quick band-aid to relieve overcrowding, and a poor one at that. The Chronicle writer is correct that another "customer" will soon be eyeing the Dickens County lock-up, although he optimistically says it will be "once its issues are resolved." But Dickens has been able to fetch prisoners and collect money even with its horrid track record.

States can shop around at individual private prisons and try and pick out the least-notorious ones to put prisoners into, but the big picture is that private prisons are a gamble where everyone except the companies are losing.

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