In 1990, there were 7,771 prisoners held in private prison facilities in the US. By 2009, that number had jumped to 129,336, a 1664 percent increase. Along the way, private prisons became a multi-billion dollar industry. This growth was fueled, in part, by the “pitch” that privatizing prisons would save tax dollars. As the ACLU documented in its new report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, the private prison industry’s narrative is in need of serious revision.
Last spring, the myth of cost savings through prison privatization was shot down by the head of Texas prisons, Brad Livingston, who testified before the House Corrections Committee that non-salary operating costs of public and private facilities are almost identical (Texas House Committee on Corrections, 4/13/11, at 1:31:08). The ACLU report also found that private prisons may fail to save tax payer money, and furthermore, in order to maximize profits, they are strongly incentivized to cut corners which can result in poorly trained employees, and affect the wellbeing of prisoners.
So, if private prisons aren’t cheaper, aren’t more efficient, and aren’t run in a better manner why do we have them? A major reason, as the report documented, is that beginning in the 1990s the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that brings together state legislators and corporations to discuss public policy and draft model legislation, began to push legislation that would result in mass incarceration and promote private prisons. Some of this legislation, such as “truth in sentencing” and “three strikes” laws may sound familiar. During this time, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the leading private prison company, played a lead role on the ALEC task force developing some of this legislation. In addition to ALEC, the private prison industry employs an army of lobbyists throughout the country. CCA and The GEO Group, Inc., the two largest private prison corporations, hired 271 lobbyists in over 32 states between 2003-2011. Between 1999 and 2009, CCA alone spent over $18 million on lobbying, just at the federal level.
Mass incarceration is the natural by-product of a powerful industry whose bottom line requires incarcerating as many people as possible, regardless of the impact. And, the private prison companies don’t try to hide their goals. For example, this is what GEO stated in its filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (The report shows that CCA had a similar statement in its SEC filing):
“reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities. Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”
This model is broken because it is based on incarceration instead of crime prevention. For-profit private prisons are not the answer to making our streets safer and our society more productive. Instead, we must focus on creating a system that is less is harmful to our pocketbooks, protects our safety, and respects basic human dignity. Read the full ACLU report here.
A prison in Jones County built by Community Education Centers for $35 million in local revenue bonds sits empty according to a new story at KTXS ("New Detention Center in Jones County Awaits Inmates," July 15).
County officials have said that they hope to fill the prison with state prisoners even though the state state has adopted various policy reforms (PDF) that have lessened the demand for state prison capacity. The story is a little murky here -- we will do some digging to see if we can follow the money. From this report ("Jones County officials await word from the state on detention facility funding," Abilene Reporter-News, May 23), it appears that even though policies were adopted to lessen the need for prison space, state authorities were assuming the need for expansion:
"The state approved a contract for the prison to be built in Jones County in 2008. Revenue bonds were approved by the county to pay for construction, which began in May 2009."
In recent years, the Texas prison population has declined and the state plans to close a public prison next month. Jones County officials are looking for contracts to fill their $35 million prison. It seems that the Governor's office and county officials have phoned folks in California in the hopes of helping that state alleviate prison overcrowding due to a recent Supreme Court order. But new polling suggests that California voters support easing penalties as a way to address the state's incarceration problem instead of expanding capacity.
We'll look into this a bit more and update y'all when we get more of the story.
Our pal Scott at Grits for Breakfast, posted a list of private prison contract term obligations earlier this month. Grits post was further exploration of a story we posted a few weeks ago regarding the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDC) looking to terminate private prison contracts. Scott adds this analysis:
A couple of notable contracts stand out as potential candidates for cuts. For starters, the Mineral Wells facility was the one unit state Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire is interested in closing, and for security reasons, not because of the budget. The contract for that troubled facility ends conveniently around a month after the next legislative session starts, meaning there's a lot of time for budget pressures to build between now and then. What's more, the Board of Pardons and Parole hasn't really been using the Mineral Wells facility the way it was intended, so there's no special reason to keep it opened compared to, say, Intermediate Sanctions Facilities on the list.
Equally interesting to me is the fact that the Dawson State Jail's contract with Corrections Corporation of America is up for renewal next January. This ill-placed facility is located in downtown Dallas on the banks of the Trinity River in prime real estate the city hopes to redevelop. So the fact that Dawson's contract ends on January 15, 2011 is a significant date for the city of Dallas: If the state renews the contract, the proposed riverfront redevelopment could be put on hold indefinitely. It's possible, then, we may see members of the Dallas delegation and related development interests pushing for non-renewal, though certainly CCA will have its own lobbyists on the other side.
Hopefully, lawmakers will continue to consider the possibility of terminating contracts as they figure out what to do with unused prison beds.
Amongst the interesting statistics in the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee's interim report on private prisons (PDF), was the shocking statistic that TDCJ-contracted private prisons have a 90% annual staff turnover rate. The report also presented numbers on differences in guard pay between public and private facilities.
"The wages and benefits paid to employees of private contractors are generally lower than that paid to employees of state-operated facilities... Correctional officer salaries in the private prisons vary among facilities, with the highest peaking at slightly more than $24,000 annually."
For comparison to this figure, TDCJ Director Brad Livingston told the Austin American Statesman ("Big raises sought for prison workers," August 14) that starting pay for correctional officers in public facilities is $26,016, and the maximum salaries range from $34,624 to $42,242. This means the lowest-paid TDCJ guard's annual salary is $2,000 more than the highest-paid guard at TDCJ-contracted private prisons.
This probably contributes to the high turnover at private facilities noted in the report:
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.
It's hard to understand how ANY organization can operate with 90% staff turnover.