Thursday, May 19, 2011

Private Dungeons

File this under "News of the Duh."

Private Prisons' Cost Benefits Debated:

PHOENIX — The conviction that private prisons save money helped drive more than 30 states to turn to them for housing inmates. But Arizona shows that popular wisdom might be wrong: Data there suggest that privately operated prisons can cost more to operate than state-run prisons — even though they often steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates.

The state’s experience has particular relevance now, as many politicians have promised to ease budget problems by trimming state agencies. Florida and Ohio are planning major shifts toward private prisons, and Arizona is expected to sign deals doubling its private-inmate population.

The measures would be a shot in the arm for an industry that has struggled, in some places, to fill prison beds as the number of inmates nationwide has leveled off. But hopes of big taxpayer benefits might end in disappointment, independent experts say.

“There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” said Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.”

I've been writing about this for two years now, since the "Great Recession" was viewed as an "in" for the private dungeon industry. And Arizona is the same state which wanted to privatize its death row back in '09, which oddly the article makes no mention of.

But the idea that private prisons don't save money is a very old idea, backed up by decades of research. In some cases, with the constant monitoring that states and the federal government must engage in to make sure these publicly-traded companies are running constitutional prisons, it actually ends up costing more money.

The multi-billion dollar a year industry is pushing back, however.

Privatization advocates play down the data. Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research organization, questioned whether all costs were included and said the figures were too narrowly drawn, particularly on medium-security prisons, to prompt conclusions. “It is looking at a limited slice,” Mr. Gilroy said.

Competing studies — some financed by the prison industry — have argued over claims of savings. But when a University of Utah team including Mr. Van Vleet reviewed years of research, it concluded in 2007 that “cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal.”

Steve Owen, spokesman for the largest operator, Corrections Corporation of America, said: “There is a mixed bag of research out there. It’s not as black and white and cut and dried as we would like.”

Actually, it is. As Welch and others have noted for years, the private prison lobby is extremely well-financed and powerful at the state and national levels, doling out millions in campaign contributions and favors throughout the country. And in criminal justice (particularly imprisonment), nothing "succeeds" like failure, even if it means resorting to shell games to justify your existence.

Mr. Owen did not dispute the Arizona research, but said the industry saved money. He pointed to a study — partly financed by the industry — that found states with private prisons had lower growth in public prison costs.

“We do provide value to our government partners,” he said.

I think it's the other way around. It's just part of the entire Keynesian economics mode of corrections: the government transfers millions of public tax dollars to private corporations, and what "savings" are incurred (if any) don't come back to the taxpayers: they go to the corporations and their stockholders in terms of profit.

That's a real "value," alright.

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