July 5, 2010

Behind the Bars | Experts question benefits of private prisons

By R. G. Dunlop rdunlop@courier-journal.com

Most supporters of for-profit prisons -- in particular, the companies that build and operate them -- contend that the case in favor of privatization is clear and indisputable.

Privately operated prisons, they argue, are cheaper and safer than those run by government, and are at least as accountable to the public.

They don't cut corners. Their employees are well-trained, well-paid and retained at rates comparable to those in the public sector.

They're many of the arguments made by Corrections Corp. of America, the nation's largest operator of private prisons, including the Otter Creek Correctional Center in Eastern Kentucky.

But experts and academic research during the past 20 years have raised serious doubts about the benefits of private prisons.

It is a "myth" that private prisons can provide services better and more cheaply that those run by the government, said Michele Deitch, a University of Texas professor who was part of an American Bar Association task force that drafted proposed national standards on the treatment of prisoners.

"The facts are that private vendors compromise safety and security to keep down costs," Deitch said in an address to a criminal-justice conference in Honolulu last October. "They save money by hiring inexperienced staff at the low end of the wage scale. When you've got inexperienced, poorly trained staff, you've got a recipe for security and safety problems in a prison."

Steve Owen, spokesman for the Nashville-based CCA, asked the newspaper to submit written questions on the matter but then declined to respond to them.

On its website, CCA cites a study supporting its conclusions that private prisons are more cost-effective. But it acknowledges that it partially funded the study.

And the findings did not address issues such as inmate safety and the quality of service provided by private-prison operators -- concerns that eventually prompted state officials in Hawaii and Kentucky to remove female inmates from CCA's Otter Creek prison.

Private prison savings elusive

Kentucky law requires private prisons to provide programs at least equal in quality to those offered by state-operated facilities housing similar types of inmates, and at a cost savings to the state of at least 10 percent.

That makes private prisons appealing to politicians and others concerned about crowded government-run institutions.

And that's especially important in Kentucky, where the inmate population -- now at roughly 21,000 -- is growing faster than that of any other state. Kentucky's corrections budget approached $500 million this year, and virtually all of the state-run prisons and many jails are operating at or above capacity.

With legislators reluctant to appear soft on crime by amending sentencing laws to reduce inmate populations, the state has relied increasingly on private prisons.

It's a move that has been supported by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The chamber, which also backs sentencing reform and other options to stem costs, said an inmate can be housed in one of the state's three private prisons for approximately $2,500 less a year, on average, than in Kentucky's 13 state-run prisons.

But a recent report by the state Legislative Research Commission repeatedly cautioned against efforts to compare the state's public and private prisons.

The statute requiring the 10 percent cost savings "has been difficult to implement because of a lack of similarity between state and contracted prisons and the inmates they house," the LRC study observed.

The LRC report also found that during the past fiscal year the average staff vacancy rate at Otter Creek was 9 percent, more than twice as high as at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, the only state-run prison for female inmates.

And inmate grievances against staff were nearly twice as high at Otter Creek as at the state prison.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb acknowledged that "private prisons are not less expensive than all of our institutions." She added that, because of the many factors affecting prison costs, it is "very difficult" to determine whether Kentucky's private prisons actually comply with the 10 percent savings required by law.

But she said the department "does continue to assert that the private prisons are a cost-effective option in housing Kentucky's felon population," especially since the state doesn't have enough room to hold inmates.

Studies dispute private prisons' virtue

Questions about the wisdom of private prisons date at least to 1988, when John Donahue of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government concluded in a study for the Economic Policy Institute that they are "probably not" a good idea.

"The evidence on potential cost savings is too weak and too questionable to warrant so radical and risky an experiment," he concluded.

Donahue said in a recent e-mail that his views of private prisons haven't changed significantly, although "we haven't seen either the worst or the best that one might have imagined."

Since the mid-1990s, at least 10 studies, including several by researchers at the federal Bureau of Prisons, have questioned the private prison industry's claims, especially with respect to cost savings and security.

Among them:

*A 1996 review, by the U.S. General Accounting Office, of five studies found that they "reported little difference and/or mixed results" comparing public and private prisons. ... We could not conclude whether privatization saved money."

*A 1999 analysis by two University of Cincinnati researchers of 24 independent studies evaluating the cost-effectiveness of public and private prisons concluded that "the results revealed that private prisons were no more cost-effective than public prisons."

*A 1999 article by Scott Camp and Gerald Gaes of the federal Bureau of Prisons concluded: "For the most part, proponents of privatization make global, unsubstantiated, speculative claims which are rarely addressed with concrete evidence."

*A 2001 study by James Austin and Garry Coventry of the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance concluded that private prisons offered "only modest cost savings," achieved primarily through moderate reductions in staffing patterns, fringe benefits and other labor-related costs. They also found that private prisons have significantly lower staffing levels and that private prisons reported "a significantly higher rate of assaults" on inmates and staff.

Because private prisons have such a small market share --about 5 percent of the total inmate population nationwide -- Austin and Coventry found that they tend to have only a limited impact on most states' overall corrections budgets.

In Kentucky, according to the LRC report, the state's three private prisons housed 5.5 percent of its inmates during the last fiscal year, at a cost of $20.6 million -- 5.3 percent of the state's total inmate cost.

Camp and Gaes said in a 2001 study that any savings from privatization "will most likely come from lower wages and/or benefits."

Starting pay at Otter Creek is $8.25 an hour, nearly $3 less per hour than the state pays corrections workers at two of its nearby prisons.

At the federal prison in Inez, about 60 miles from Otter Creek, starting pay for workers with no corrections experience is $18.18 an hour.

Gaes, former director of the Bureau of Prisons' Office of Research and Evaluation, said in an interview that he believes estimates of cost savings "are typically exaggerated" by private-prison advocates.

"I'm not anti-privatization," said Gaes, who is now a consultant in the Washington, D.C., area. "But I don't think the case has been made that (private prisons) are superior in cost or quality. Quite the opposite, in fact."

State has few options

Although corrections officials acknowledge moving the more than 400 female inmates housed at Otter Creek to a state-run facility because of allegations of inmate sexual abuse by corrections officers, Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown said in an interview that the state can't just walk away from the private prison.

Citing the state's growing prison problem, he said "we do not have very many really good options," and the state's "best option is to partner with CCA."

However, he said, that "does not at all mean that CCA is going to get in a situation where it abuses its side of the partnership with us."

Brown wouldn't specify the state's alternatives to CCA. But Lisa Lamb, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the options would include contracting with local jails and attempting to move as many inmates as possible to state-run prisons.

But she acknowledged local jails lack space, with department statistics indicating that many are operating at or above capacity.

Those numbers lead Robert Lawson, a longtime University of Kentucky law professor and the author of several studies on penal institutions and overcrowding, to conclude that Kentucky "can't do without" private prisons.

"I'd like to know what the hell they'd do with them (inmates now housed in private prisons)," Lawson said in an interview. "They can't break the relationship because they don't have the facilities to house the inmates they have. I think they're locked in everywhere they turn, and don't have any alternative to CCA."

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at (502) 582-4227.