The Texas Tribune's Brandi Grissom reported yesterday ("House Lawmakers Propose Privatizing All State Jails", March 31) that House Lawmakers are considering a plan to privatize all of Texas' state jail facilities. Rep. Erwin Cain, R-Como, filed a budget amendment Tuesday which would require TDCJ to begin a competitive bidding process on its non-contracted state jail facilities by January 1, 2012. According to that amendment (p 272), TDCJ would have to either shutter facilities which had estimated operating costs 10% higher than the bids, or eventually enter into a contract with a private operator for them. If Cain's legislation does pass, it's certain TDCJ would be required to privatize its fifteen remaining state jail facilities.
State jail facilities house prisoners convicted of low-level drug and property offenses for periods of up to two years. Five of Texas's twenty state jail facilities are currently privatized. They are managed by Corrections Corporation of America, and their capacity sums to 7,345 beds. The non-contracted facilities held around 12,500 inmates in 2009.
The Tribune reported that Cain said he will rescind his amendment. He then plans to attach it to a corrections bill authored by House Corrections Chair, Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, because of "technical concerns about the language."
According to the Tribune, Cain said in support of his amendment that, "government is not always the efficient provider." As we've noted in the past, though, the implication that private prisons are more efficient than those run by TDCJ is incorrect.
The studies that purport to demonstrate efficiency gains from privatization have failed to control for operational differences (read: compromises in safety and security) at private facilities. Texas's state auditor said as much when it recognized TDCJ hadn't even established adequate standards by which to judge contract compliance. Additionally, the studies that purport to show efficiency gains achieved by privatization are suspect, because they have been funded by private prison companies.
Private prisons appear to achieve cost savings relative to TDCJ with their initial bids because they hire guards at much-lower wages, but their strategy leads to chronic job vacancies, high rates of turnover, and consequent operational and security problems (For one resource on this, see Grassroots Leadership's "Considering a Private Jail, Prison, or Detention Center?"). In a comparison of private prisons with state-run facilities, TDCJ included the following:
"During FY 2008 the correctional officer turnover rate at the seven private prisons was 90 percent (60 percent for the five privately-operated state jails), which, in either case, is higher than the 24 percent turnover rate for TDCJ correctional officers during FY 2008."
-Interim Report to the 81st Legislature, Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice (December 2008)
So, private facilities have a unique problem with high turnover not experienced by state-run prisons and jails, and TDCJ's data shows the high rate of turnover is just one of the consequences of privatization. (we wrote about this before). The Bureau of Justice Assistance reported that private facilities experienced 49% more assaults on staff and 65% more inmate-oninmate assaults than public facilities. Private facilities also had significantly lower staffing levels than public facilities. A report by the Bureau of Prisons similarly found that private prisons had fewer correctional officers and much higher rates of staff turnover, escapes, and drug use than public prisons. So, while incidents at private facilities are sometimes similar in nature to those at state-run facilities, their incidence is uniquely high (See "Considering a Private Jail, Prison, or Detention Center?").
Even the purported cost-savings claimed by private prison companies are dubitable, though. This is because private facilities often take the least expensive inmates from TDCJ, and when TDCJ's contracted facilities have come to their point of renewal, their rates often go up. Sylvester Turner noted this in Brandi Grissom's Tribune Article:
"But state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, cautioned against the notion of more privatization, saying it could cost the state more in the long term. Past attempts at privatization, he said, have shown that companies are interested only in less expensive inmates. The state is left to shoulder the burden of housing the most-costly inmates: those who are sick and mentally ill. And, he said, there's no guarantee that private providers' rates won't skyrocket in the future."
One more very important objection to privatization was mentioned in the Tribune article, this time from Ana Yañez-Correa:
Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said privatizing jails provides a perverse incentive to continue policies that keep more people in jail, because it results in more profits for the companies running the facilities. "The real cost savings is going to come out of minimizing the number of people who don’t need to be there," she said.
This is what Molly Ivins said, and it's one of the most concerning aspects of privatization. Through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), private prison companies support harsher sentencing and seek to influence legislation that raises profits by holding as many warm bodies in private prison cells as possible.
We'll be following developments on this front at the legislature.