States Turn To Private Prisons As Inmate Populations Increase
By Bair S Walker , Senior Writer
Used by a number of states during the 1800s, privately run prisons were legislated out of existence due to high-profile, inmate-abuse scandals following the Civil War. However, prison privatization is now back with a vengeance, thanks to mandatory sentencing, prison overcrowding and burgeoning corrections budgets.
Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Conference of State Legislatures indicate that at least 29 states either house minimum- to medium-security inmates, or ship them to other states. They are Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Furthermore, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Wyoming have laws or regulations paving the way for prison privatization.
Most of the resurgence has occurred in the last decade or so. In 1988, prisons and jails operated by private companies housed just 3,000 prisoners, according to the NCSL. By last year, that number had grown to 85,000 prisoners.
States are flocking to prison privatization to cut costs and because many of their prisons and jails are overflowing. Because private prisons are newer and designed to require less manpower, their operation tends to be cheaper.
"I don't think any (state) has a clear, convincing idea of whether it's going to provide the great cost-savings they had hoped for," says Donna Lyons, with the NCSL. "There's a lot of interest and activity -- as long as prisons are full and it's a way to get some beds on line quickly, it will be something that states look at."
Prison privatization is "something that's been around in this country for a long time," says Jim Stephan, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics. "It was limited by state laws because there were terrible abuses after the Civil War, mainly in the South, where inmates were forced to work. Then states enacted laws circumscribing private prisons."
Oklahoma joined the current trend in 1991, when the Great Plains Correction Facility came on line in Hinton, OK. Around the same time that Great Plains was built by a private corporation, Oklahoma was beginning to experience severe prison overcrowding. The problem was exacerbated by a state decision to end all inmate early release programs in 1996.
Things got so bad that the Sooner State was forced to reopen court-condemned cellblocks to house inmates on an emergency basis, according to Cunningham.
Now, Oklahoma is housing 5,500 inmates, or about 25 percent of its inmate population, in seven relatively new privately run facilities around the state, Cunningham says. The most modern state-run Oklahoma prison is 20 years old, while the oldest is 93 years old.
Oklahoma's "overall experience has been good," Cunningham says, although private prisons have actually proven to be more expensive to operate than state-run facilities. The per diem average for keeping Oklahoma prisoners in private facilities is roughly $46 a day, slightly more than the state typically pays.
That's because "in Oklahoma, our system is very inexpensive compared to some northern states, like Michigan, for example," Cunningham says. "Private prisons weren't expected to save as much here, because we have pretty bare-bones budgets. So it really wasn't done as a cost-savings measure, it was done to relieve overcrowding."
When private prisons fail they tend to do so spectacularly, not unlike their state-run counterparts. At the Tallulah Correction Center for Youth, in Monroe, La., state officials recently assumed control of the 700-bed facility, after 18 security officers vacated their posts during a 45-minute work stoppage.
Last year, Tennessee mulled what would have been the nation's most noteworthy prison-privatization experiment. The Volunteer State was poised to turn most of its 13,000 inmates over to private corporations.
Tennessee was enticed by a cost-saving claim made by Memphis-based Corrections Corporation of America, a major player in the prison-privatization business, that Tennessee could shave $100 million from its annual $450 million corrections budget by letting CCA run most of its prisons.
Ultimately, a privatization bill was withdrawn from Tennessee's General Assembly in the face of vehement opposition from the Tennessee State Employees Association. Also, doubts were raised as to whether $100 million in cost savings were achievable.