Alabama’s prison system is perennially overcrowded and underfunded – and often at risk of federal government takeover. For some in Alabama state government, the “perfect” solution is privatization – turning state prisons over to private companies to manage.
Ethical concerns aside, prison privatization has been a bad deal for other states. There’s no reason for Alabama to jump on board. Here’s our 6-part series that explains why…..
Part 1: Profit & Politics in Alabama Prison Reform
In Alabama, when the public good gets in the way of private profits, public good usually ends up as a grease spot on the pavement. Private prison companies know about the problems in Alabama prisons & they’d love nothing more than to take over our state prison system.
And a short-term infusion of cash money in exchange for Alabama’s prisons could well prove irresistible to our tax-phobic governor & GOP supermajority. Even if they don’t go quite that far, it’s more than possible that private companies could be brought in to manage public facilities.
Part 2: History of Prison Privatization – Making Crime Pay
If there’s a bad public policy idea floating around, history suggests that Alabama will be an early adopter. Convict leasing began here in 1845, expanded enormously after the war, and lasted until 1928. It was a good financial deal for the state – but not for the prisoners.
The convict leasing & prison labor systems had a lot of stakeholders: states, businesses, local law enforcement, the judiciary – all had a financial interest in the system. One important group on the outside though, was workers. Prison labor depressed wages in the larger economy and made good jobs harder to get.
Many private prison contracts are for minimum or medium-security facilities, which are less expensive to operate. That leaves the state to operate maximum-security facilities and artificially inflates the perceived cost savings of privatization. In Arizona, the DOC found thateven lower-security private prison beds cost more. Minimum security beds save 3 cents per day, but medium-security cost $4.60 per day more in private prisons. 46% of private prison inmates were in medium-security facilities, meaning that prison privatization actually cost Arizona taxpayers. It’s the same in other states too
Part 4: Private Prisons & Government – A Revolving Door of Influence & Insiders
In 2012, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) sent letters to 48 state governors offering to buy the state prison systems outright. All CCA required in return was a 20-year management contract and guaranteed 90% occupancy rate. This was a stunning offer from a company that was barely three decades old, and it highlights just how successful the private prison industry has been in penetrating the “marketplace” of public prisons. How did they do it? How does anything get done in today’s political environment? With money, lobbying, and insider influence.
Part 5: Sweetheart Contracts Fill Beds & Pad Profits
The private prison industry’s business model is built on keeping people in jail. The more people incarcerated, the higher the profit margin. The industry doesn’t even try to refute that. In its 2010 Annual Report (PDF) , CCA noted: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . .”
2013 wasn’t a good year for private prisons on the public relations front. The industry faced federal reports of “unconstitutional conditions” in some facilities, civil rights lawsuits filed by prisoners, & CCA (the largest private prison company in the country) ceased operations in Idaho after being held in contempt by a federal judge. Prison privatization advocates highlight expected “cost savings,” and some private facilities do appear to house inmates for less than comparable public prisons. That’s not to say that they’re doing “more for less,” though. In many states, private prisons appear to do less for less:
- Less training & screening for prison guards
- Lower quality food
- Lower wages for prison employees
- Fewer rehabilitative services
- Poor quality medical care