Here's how the Alabama Legislature looks at the world. There isn't enough money to fund essential services (stuff like crime labs, health care, education, and county jail medical care), so a possible solution is to hire for-profit companies to provide those services for less than the state was already paying. Then, the lawmakers can pat themselves on the back for “controlling costs” and move on to the next lobbyist dinner.
But how is it a solution to hand over an already poorly-funded operation to a company whose main interest is in wringing profit out of it? Where's that money going to come from?
In terms of prison reform. it comes out of the hides of inmates, their families, and communities. When someone is making a profit from locking people up, there's a strong temptation to incarcerate more people for longer stretches. Peel back the veneer of “public safety” and you'll often find that “private prisons' profit motive” is really in control.
The dominant argument for private prisons is that they will save taxpayers money, as for-profit owners have an incentive to seek efficiencies bureaucrats overseeing government institutions lack. Anyway, that's the theory. According to the Arizona Republic, the reality is that private prisons in the Grand Canyon State so far cost more on a per-prisoner basis than do public institutions.
There's a tremendous incentive for the private prison industry to expand. We saw this last week at a “prison overcrowding forum” in Huntsville. It's a joint venture between the Alabama Media Group and the David Matthews Center for Civc Life – which seems to be a good organization without ulterior motives.
The same cannot be said for some of the people who spoke.
John Zierdt Jr. is an advocate for privatization and suggested the state examine how similar arrangements, specifically with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are working in neighboring states.
“I think they offer a very good solution,” Zierdt said. “It's a good solution for us because you don't have to do capital expenditures. It's something I think really needs to be looked at.”
Randy Hillman, the executive director of the Office of Prosecution Services for the Alabama District Attorneys Association, noted that the overcrowding situation wouldn't be solved with the construction of just one new prison.
“You're going to move inmates into the new facility to keep others from falling in on themselves,” he said.
Zierdt said that with privatization there is the possibility to temporarily move inmates to other states where space is available.
“You can pay now or you're going to pay later,” he said. “You're going to play later when the fed takes over because you'll still get CCA.”
Zierdt isn't just an “advocate for privatization.” He has a long history in that industry, running TransCor, a prisoner transport company purchased by – surprise! – CCA – the company he's shilling for now.
“Moving prisoners around” sounds like a good use of resources, except that it costs families dearly. A CCA-own for-profit prison in Kentucky houses inmates from Vermont. A Vermont coalition of families, religious groups, & other advocates is asking the state to bring these inmates back to the state. Communities have an interest in reducing recidivism, and one way to do that is for inmates to have family & community support. However, for CCA, recidivism is just another profit-making opportunity.
The private prison industry is already making a killing (sometimes literally) from immigration detention centers. ICE contracts with five corporations that together spent $20 million on lobbying between 1999 & 2009. CCA is a big player:
Corrections Corporation of America by far spends the most on federal lobbying, totaling $18,002,000 from 1999 to 2009. The bulk of this was between 2003 and 2007, when CCA spent between $2,020,000 and $3,800,000 each year, averaging over $3 million per year.
For-profit prison companies have a lot of money to throw around, but they aren't using much of it to benefit their workforce. The average wage for a private prison employee is barely above minimum wage: $8.25/hour – far less than the wages of Alabama state prison employees.
Private prison employees are often poorly trained. For instance, at Zierdt's former company, TransCor, employees get 40 hours of in-house training. They were then considered “qualified” to transport prisoners – journeys with conditions so terrible that inmates have sued.
We've already seen how privatization of medical care in county jails has worked in Madison County. Why should we expect that privatizing the entire prison system would produce better results?
The problem in Alabama – and in many states – is that there isn't enough money available for state services and legislators are unwilling to do anything to raise revenue – except maybe hit the poor with more regressive sales taxes.
Alabama is facing a HUGE budget shortfall – $250 million – this next year and our even stronger GOP supermajority is only interested in cutting more & handing out more corporate welfare payments. They've already had the great idea to turn prison inmates into a compliant workforce for private companies, so it won't be a big leap for them to just get the state out of the prison business altogether.
This next legislative session will be interesting on so many levels.