Commentary: Private prisons don’t save money, don’t make us safer

In May, Texas lawmakers decided to close three private prisons — four total are to be shuttered — due to modest declines in the state’s prison population. There is a long history of prison privatization in the Lone Star State and around the country. Behind that history are efforts to save money that cause real public safety problems. We know there is a better way.

Nationally, 8.3 percent of the 1.5 million people confined in U.S. prisons were held in private for-profit facilities as of 2015. The War on Drugs and enactment of harsher sentencing policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, fueled a rapid expansion in the nation’s prison population beginning in the 1970s. The burden on the public sector led to private prison companies seeking contracts to profit off the resulting overcrowding crisis.

The most prominent corporations — Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group — collectively manage more than half of the private prison contracts in the United States, which resulted in combined revenues of $3.5 billion in 2015.

Supporters of prison privatization claim cost savings as the primary benefit to contracting correctional services. In 2012, Florida considered fully privatizing its prison system. The move surfaced opposition from several stakeholders including the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, which concluded that “Florida’s experience with privatized prisons raises serious questions about whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.”

Indeed, the U.S. General Accounting Office found they could not definitively conclude that privatization would not save money, but also established that “these studies do not offer substantial evidence that savings have occurred.”

Private prison providers seek to generate profits by containing labor expenses, salaries and staff benefits, as well as limiting support for professional training. The security in institutions and the safety of prison workers and incarcerated individuals is at risk when there are inexperienced and poorly trained staff. On average, private prison employees receive 58 hours less training than their publicly employed counterparts. Federal researchers documented higher rates of escapes from private prisons as well as contraband violations evidenced by higher rates of positive drug tests.

At the federal level, the use of private prisons outpaces states: about 18 percent of federal prison beds are private compared to 7 percent of state beds. Last year, [then-]President Obama’s Department of Justice announced plans to phase out private prison contracts for two reasons. First, a decline in the federal prison population reduced the need for contract beds. And second, concerns were raised by the Office of Inspector General about substandard conditions in many facilities, including higher rates of abuse.

The announcement resulted in a sharp decline for private prison stocks. After President Trump’s election, private prison stocks rebounded. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the DOJ private prison phase-out and directed federal prosecutors to seek harsher penalties; the administration will likely turn to private prisons if the federal prison population increases despite the findings of mismanagement.

From 1999 to 2015, the number of state prisoners incarcerated privately grew by 36 percent, from 67,380 to 91,338 people. However, states’ reliance on private prisons varies significantly. Montana and New Mexico send more than 40 percent of their prisoners to private prisons, while Kansas and North Carolina are among several states that have no contracts.

Many states have experienced prison population declines, providing an opportunity to scale reduce contract beds. This year, Nevada lawmakers considered legislation to ban private prison contracts in addition to the decision by Texas officials to close three private prisons. And at the local level, the District of Columbia ended private management of one of its jails. These changes were made possible due to sustained advocacy concerned with prison privatization and decarceration initiatives.

However, Kentucky’s governor recently announced plans to contract with a private prison company due to prison overcrowding despite eliminating for-profit contracts four years ago.

Private prisons are not an effective option for lawmakers looking at prison management. For those motivated by reducing costs, reforming punitive sentencing policies to reduce prison populations would be far more effective. Moreover, investing public safety dollars in programs that prevent crime, divert prison-bound defendants and provide re-entry services evidenced to reduce recidivism.

The prison population decline in recent years provides an opportunity for new thinking about advancing justice and ensuring safety. Streamlining this country’s prison infrastructure, including terminating wasteful private prison contracts, should be an important component of this new strategy.

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