Reality Has Turned the Tide Against Private Prisons

Coast-to-coast, governments are realizing that outsourcing corrections to for-profit corporations is a bad deal for taxpayers, and for public safety.
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In July of 2010, three inmates from the privately owned, for-profit Kingman Arizona State Prison received bolt cutters and lineman's pliers over a fence from an outside accomplice. The three prisoners, with four murders or attempted murders between them, cut the chain-link fence and made their getaway leading to a nationwide manhunt that lasted for weeks.

Less than two weeks later, two of the inmates and their accomplice carjacked a couple vacationing in New Mexico. They then forced the couple into their trailer and murdered them before driving the truck to a remote farm and abandoning the burning tailor and truck with the murder victims' remains still inside.

A state investigation found that a "culture of complacency" existed at the Kingman facility that allowed the perfect opportunity for the escape. Alarms were often ignored due to the frequency of false alarms. In the 16 hours around the escape, 87 false alarms occurred. "Answering the phone, issuing keys, [and] checking staff in" were seen as higher priorities. Facility staff had a high turnover rate, leading to a lack of training. Floodlights in the yard were inoperative and doors were often left open and unwatched.

After the escape, the state pulled 238 high-risk prisoners out of the facility and refused to send any additional prisoners until the facility's operator, Management & Training Corp., fixed the identified problems. But that only triggered more "funny if it wasn't true" hijinks -- this time at the expense of taxpayers.

Buried in Arizona's contract with MTC was a clause that required the state to keep the facility full to 97 percent capacity, or else pay for nonexistent inmates. During the 11 months MTC took to make necessary corrections, occupancy dropped below the 97 percent lockup quota. When Arizona refused to pay for those empty prison beds, MTC sued. A settlement later billed Arizona taxpayers $3 million for prison space left empty due to MTC's incompetence.

Coast-to-coast, governments are realizing that outsourcing corrections to for-profit corporations is a bad deal for taxpayers, and for public safety. That realization isn't always a result of facts (A recent editorial in the Arizona Republic noted that pro-private prison lawmakers in that state repealed a statutory requirement to compare costs between public and private facilities when those comparisons showed the public prisons to be a better deal.) Rather, the tide has turned against private prisons because reality is setting in.

Look at Idaho -- yes, Idaho -- where reality has finally won the day. In 1997, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) took over the Idaho Correctional Center. Predictably, the facility was soon plagued with rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity, and contract fraud committed by CCA. One former inmate said the facility was so violent that it was commonly referred to as "gladiator school." What's more, in 2012 the Associated Press showed that taxpayers didn't even get the savings they were promised.

This month, tired of the bad headlines, Idaho Governor Butch Otter -- a strong proponent of "small government" and outsourcing public services -- announced that the state would take back control over its largest corrections facility because "in recognition of what's happened, what's happening, it's necessary. It's the right thing to do."

Reality also hit CCA a few days ago. A Vermont judge ruled that the company had to comply with open records laws. When the Human Rights Defense Center submitted an open records request concerning conditions in CCA facilities, the company argued that private companies weren't subject to Vermont's open records laws, even though CCA has received about $73 million in taxpayer funds from the state since 2007. The judge made clear that if CCA wants to run a public service, they have to comply with public laws.

And reality struck last year in Texas (where two for-profit facilities have been closed) and Florida (where some private facilities have been placed back under taxpayer control.) The Tulsa World, Oklahoma's second most widely circulated paper, editorialized against for-profit prisons calling them "private gulags." And the Tennessean responded to lockup quotas in a Nashville facility, stating, "it's hard not to be exasperated."

All of this momentum does not suggest the imminent death of the for-profit prison industry. Some states, including California and West Virginia, are currently gearing up to send millions more to these companies. But the past year has been a watershed moment, and we are heading in the right direction. In light of these developments, these states would be wise to look to sentencing reform to reduce populations, rather than signing reckless outsourcing contracts.

The arguments against private prisons are myriad and compelling. Promised savings end up as increased costs. Lockup quotas force taxpayers to guarantee profits for prison companies through lock up quotas hidden in contracts. They incentivize mass incarceration while discouraging sentencing reform in an era when crime rates are plummeting.

But more than anything else, the reality of the disastrous private prison experiment has turned the public against the industry.

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