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Are private prisons worth it?

The most widely cited study in argument of states contracting out private prisons on the Internet seems to be: “Do Government Agencies Respond to Market Pressures? Evidence from Private Prisons” headed by James F. Blumstein of Vanderbilt Law School.

$15,000,000 savings it says. Wow. How can you argue with $15 million more in a state’s pocket?

Well, you can read the study:

…which unsurprisingly received funding by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and by the Association for Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations (APCTO).

In using the study as evidence in favor of contracting out prisons over public prison, it’s important to note the study does not focus on the direct cost savings that accrue as a result of the lower costs of privately-provided government services, but rather the rate of growth in expenditures on publicly held prisoners.

I’m going to assume the numbers are accurate and assume the study’s own attempts to weed out extraneous variables were admirable. I can’t fact check the math largely because my math education hasn’t covered regression analysis. (Ugh, lengthy multivariable formulas are every journalist’s nightmare.) But I can argue that $15 million in savings is not terribly significant when by the study’s own numbers, “in 2004 the average Department of Corrections expenditures in states without private prisoners was approximately $493 million.”

The study also concludes that “while we believe this is an important finding and should provide policy makers with an additional reason to favor privatization of some portion of a state’s prisons, we realize that this is only a cost-analysis, and does not necessarily relate to the benefits of private versus public prisons. A benefit-cost analysis would need to account for both the cost savings as well as the benefits of public versus private incarceration.”

Cost-benefit analysis, eh?

3% estimated average savings versus the numerous qualitative arguments against private prisons such as:

  • It create incentives for both legal and illegal methods of increasing sentence terms for prisoners.  Obvious ethical quandaries ensue.
  • Corporations cut corners, most often in the areas of staff pay, training, and Research and Development. This results in facilities that are short staffed, inexperienced, and with high turnover rates.  Some studies promote that private facilities are a recipe for poor containment.
  • Some private institutions reserve the right to reject high cost inmates, sending them to public facilities, thereby artificially inflating their cost-savings figures.
  • The Israeli Supreme Court declared private prisons unconstitutional under the premise that the profit motive undermines prisoner’s rights and the incarceration thus loses legitimacy.

There are plenty of areas where capitalism trumps a single-payer system, but when you’re talking about incarceration, you dive into a litany of problems where the benefits just don’t materialize.