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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Privatizing Public Services

Corporations and their political friends have long promoted the idea that private enterprises could operate basic government services more efficiently and at less cost than government itself. Everything from schools to mass transit systems has been targeted by “government for profit” campaigns.

Today, many state and local governments rue the day that they fell for these slick claims about the glories of “privatizing” public services. Nowhere is this more true than in the efforts to privatize prisons–schemes that not only raise major questions about the validity of grandiose cost-saving claims, but about public safety and the quality of prison management.

A 1996 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) which reviewed a series of academic and government studies concluded that there was no clear evidence of cost savings when private companies took over prison management. Now a new study by Good Jobs First, a national research center which tracks state and local development practices, suggests that the “prisons for profit” projects have often been cesspools of corporate welfare at the expense of the taxpayers.

Good Jobs First, studied 60 privately built and operated prisons in states and found that 73 percent of the prisons had received subsidies ranging from tax-advantaged financing to property tax reductions and tax credits. A total of $628 million in tax-free bonds and other government-issued securities were used to finance 37 percent of the prisons, and 38 percent received property tax abatements or other tax reductions. Twenty-three percent received infrastructure subsidies such as water, sewer and other utility hookups, roads and other publicly-paidimprovements.

Judith Greene, writing in the American Prospect, says the private companies’ search for profits through cost-cutting have resulted in significantly higher employee turnover, with dramatic ill effects on quality and safety of the privately-run prisons. She cites a survey conducted by George Washington University that found 49 percent more inmate-on-staff assaults and 65 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults in medium and minimum security private facilities than in similar prisons run by government. The turnover rate for correctional officers was 41 percent for private prisons compared with 15 percent in government-operated institutions, according to data reported in The Corrections Yearbook.

Greene’s article cites a series of abuses and security lapses over the last year at private prisons operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s largest private-prison company. Among these incidents:

  • Last August, two prisoners escaped from a CCA prison in Bartlett, Texas. State investigators found the doors had been left unlocked; no one was watching the closed-circuit television surveillance monitors. When the prisoners cut their way through prison’s fence, a security alarm sounded, but staff in the prison’s control center turned it off and did nothing.

    In December jurors in Columbia, South Carolina, found that guards at a CCA juvenile prison had abused a youth confined there and that their use of force was so malicious it was “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” The jury awarded $3 million in punitive damages.

  • In April prison guards at CCA’s Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico teargassed nearly 700 prisoners who had staged a day long nonviolent protest of conditions at the facility.

Good Jobs First reports a series of similar incidents in its survey of private prisons. The organization describes a 1998 incident which involved a fatal inmate stabbing and six-person escape from a CCA facility in Youngstown Ohio. In 1999, the company agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of` prisoners who claimed they were abused, denied medical care and not properly segregated from more dangerous inmates.

In April, 2000, according to the survey, authorities in Louisiana, acting under pressure from the federal government, took control of the Jena Juvenile Justice Center away from Wakenhut Corrections, another major private prison operator. The action came in the wake of revelations of widespread brutality at the facility, some of it carried out by guards or encouraged by them. Conditions were so severe at the Wakenhut facility that some youths mutilated themselves so they would be transferred to the medical unit where they could more easily avoid beatings and rapes.

Many officials have lobbied to have private prisons built in their communities in the belief that the facilities would help bring jobs and development. But, Mafruza Khan, co-author of Good Jobs First’s study, says that there is an amazing lack of information available from local development officials about the impact of private prisons on local economies.

“Many officials did not know all of the taxpayer investments that had been made in local facilities,” Mafruza said. “And despite granting hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, not one public official could cite a cost-benefit analysis or impact study on their facility.”

The concept of privately-operated prisons got a big boost with the pro-corporate, antigovernment philosophy of the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. While the demand for private prisons is declining in many states, the big operators like CCA and Wakenhut are now looking to the federal government to pick up the slack in their business. The federal inmatepopulation has grown as a result of harsh drug sentences and a crackdown on illegal activities, including many minor offenses, by non-citizens, according to the Good Jobs First report.

Privatization of prisons was a questionable idea from the beginning. In practice, it has often proven to be a costly mistake and a drain on taxpayers to finance a growing a list of subsidies to feed the profits of private corporations. Governing bodies from the local to the federal level should abandon this experiment in privatization.