Because the private sector can do everything better, more efficiently, and therefore more cheaply than government, many states have outsourced their prisons to private prison companies to generate cash, and to save money in their budgets. However, three states have now dumped the largest private prison company in the U.S., due to numerous, serious issues. According to ThinkProgress, Idaho cut ties with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), while Texas closed two CCA prisons of its own, and Mississippi ended their relationship with CCA as well. All of this happened within the last month. The problems these states were seeing ranged from inhumane conditions (including the use of prison gangs, denying access to medical care, bad food and sanitation, widespread abuse by guards, and more) to financial problems, such as falsifying hours to extract more money from the government, and deliberately understaffing the prisons.
Mississippi turned over its formerly CCA-run prisons to another private prison company, which is also riddled with problems, including having a prison that has the highest rate of inmate assaults in the state. However, Mississippi has also ended its contracts with a third prison company, GEO Group, after it was found that the company had let juvenile facility slip so far downhill that it was full of inhuman and unconstitutional acts.
Private prisons have also cost some states more money than keeping them public would have. In Arizona, the state has lost $3.5 million per year on private prisons. The Tucson Citizen discovered that the state repealed a law requiring private prison companies to demonstrate the savings to the state in their bids, and documents obtained by the Citizen also show that the state was aware that the prisons were costing more, and kept awarding contracts anyway.
Arizona’s legislature is essentially beholden to the private prison industry, going so far as to promise the private companies a 100% occupancy rate.
Legislators propose privatizing public services because they think the natural efficiency of private enterprise means that such services will be far better run than they could be by government. However, Arizona is one example where this has not only not worked, but part of the reason it hasn’t worked is because the state legislature doesn’t give a damn.
In Ohio, privatizing the prisons was part of a plan to help get the state out of its multi-billion dollar hole. Instead, the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, another CCA-owned prison, is overcrowded, with up to three inmates in single-inmate cells, and the spaces in which the inmates live are smaller than the law requires. According to an article in The Huffington Post, correctional officers said that they “had lost the prison within 3 months” of CCA taking it over, because the company was so afraid of being sued that they tied the officers’ hands when it came to pretty much everything. The officers themselves were so afraid of getting killed at work that they would often talk amongst themselves about who was going to die first.
Officer turnover at the prison is around 20% or so per year, and the new corrections officers that come in are less experienced and don’t know the Lake Erie facility at all. Furthermore, because of the profit motive, CCA has incentive to cut costs anywhere it can, and does so by eliminating inmate activities, staff, and reducing staff wages, which, according to experts, inevitably leads to a loss of quality in service. CCA also extracted a 90% occupancy rate guarantee from Ohio. Gangs essentially run the prison, and there are inmates who request to go into isolation just get away from the gangs.
In addition to all of that, calls to the police from the surrounding area have also risen sharply, due growing numbers of people throwing things from outside the prison, such as bags of drugs, cell phones and alcohol, over the fence to the inside of the prison. No need to smuggle anything in, just toss it over the fence! There aren’t enough guards to stop you.
Ohio is trying to get CCA to improve conditions there, but with so many violations across so many states, they probably shouldn’t expect much and would be better served to cut their ties with CCA as well, though their current contract, which is for 20 years, may not allow that.
When a government outsources anything to private enterprise, the expectation from the lowly taxpayer footing the bill is that money will be saved and service will at least remain the same, if not improve. Unfortunately for the market-will-solve-everything crowd, this is not always the case. The private prison system has shown that. What’s worse is that some of these companies have managed to get themselves exempted from paying taxes by deciding that they’re real estate investment trusts that rent their property out to the inmates, with the government footing the bill.
In other words, privatizing the prisons has given states and their taxpayers the opposite of what they supposedly bargained for. It’s long past time for our elected officials to figure out that the “free market” does not work for everything.