by Joseph Jerome
After the Supreme Court barred inmates in for-profit private prisons from lodging federal lawsuits alleging constitutional violations against individual corporate employees, the costs and purported benefits of our increasing reliance on private prisons warrant careful consideration.
As one local report by the Monmouth County, N.J., Correctional Facility Evaluation Task Force concluded, the legal implications alone question the appeal of private prisons. However, rather than look at the greater legal or policy ramifications of prison privatization, public officials are too quick to embrace private prisons, assuming they will save their states money.
For example, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) recently pushed for the largest private prison plan in the nation with the argument that it was “an opportunity to save money.” Republicans and Democrats in the state senate, however, joined together to defeat the measure. The legislators were dismayed that private prisons already operating in Florida actually cost more money than their state-run counterparts. “They need to start acting like any business in the private sector would and stop using imaginary numbers,” Senator Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland) complained.
So are private prisons cheaper than state-run alternatives? According to a report last fall by the ACLU, evidence of cost-savings is “mixed at best.” While Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group tout the cost-savings of their prisons, many studies by localities, states, and the General Accounting Office have questioned the veracity of such claims.
Even if it can be proven that private prisons save money, the larger concern is whether these savings truly come from productivity innovations only the private sector can provide or from cutting corners on safety, security, and rehabilitation. Adequately overseeing the inner-workings of our prisons is often a challenge, but the issue becomes especially salient with respect to private prisons.