Legislators in Okla. Grapple with Pros, Cons of Public, Private Prisons

Article excerpt

The audit of Oklahoma's corrections system issued two weeks ago may help lawmakers settle a long-standing argument this year. Nonetheless, the audit's findings do not preclude lawmakers from continuing their argument during the 2008 session if they so choose.

Some legislators favor expanding contracts with private prisons, while others advocate construction of new state-owned prisons. The consultants who prepared the audit agreed with both camps, recommending the state deal with its burgeoning prison population with a multifaceted approach.

"It depends," said Ken McGinnis, a partner with consulting firm MGT of America, when asked if private prisons are a better option than state facilities. The firm's analysis shows only a slight difference in operating costs between private and state prisons, once differences in facilities, missions and operations are taken into effect. Furthermore, the wording of the state's contract with private prison systems can make all the difference between a substantial savings for the state or a public policy nightmare.

Though the percentage of Oklahoma inmates housed in private prisons has dropped from 27 percent in 2001 to 19 percent in late 2007, the state is still a national leader in the use of private prisons. Regionally, Oklahoma is second only to New Mexico in its reliance on private prisons; Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas and Kansas do not use private prisons at all.

It is no coincidence that Oklahoma's use of private prisons grew exponentially since the late 1990s, after inmate early release programs were eliminated in 1996, and the state adopted a policy in 1999 of requiring certain violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

Then as today, the prison population grew faster than the state could add prison beds. The MGT audit found that lengthier prison terms in Oklahoma have driven the rise in prison population, which is expected to grow from the current level of 25,000 to nearly 29,000 by 2016.

State prisons in Oklahoma cost more than private prisons primarily because of the age and condition of state facilities, some of which are 75 to 100 years old. Newer prisons are designed with safety in mind, providing guards with clear sight lines and other safety features that require fewer guards to monitor prisoners. New prisons are cheaper to run due to the fewer staff hours required and other efficiencies in design and operation.

For medium-security facilities, the difference in price works out to $47.14 per inmate per day at a private facility, versus $51.94 at a state facility.

Deciding which option is preferable requires lawmakers to first ask what their needs are, the consultants said. If time is limited, private prisons are the better option. State bidding and contract laws extend the timetable for new construction to three years or more. Considering that it has been more than 20 years since the state built its last prison, the state's unfamiliarity with the process may extend the design and construction phase even further. On the other hand, private prison companies have the expertise to produce a new facility in about a year's time.

The consultants strongly recommended the state fund the Corrections Department's plan to contract with Corrections Corporation of America for 660 new maximum-security beds at the Davis facility based on the time factor. …