Finding in a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report on privatized prisons (first mentioned in last month's cover story) are under attack by university researchers who contend that the report is misleading. The GAO analysis was not requested by a member of Congress, as is usually the case with GAO reports, but was generated on the authority of the GAO. According to Laurie Ekstrand, GAO associate director for administration of justice issues and an author of and spokesperson for the report, the GAO "felt it [privatized prisons] was a critical issue that needed to be reviewed."
The GAO reviewed five pre-existing studies to determine whether claims that privatization of prisons can save taxpayers money are supported by the data. The GAO concludes that no opinion regarding the cost savings of private correctional facilities can be made based on studies from five states: Texas, New Mexico, California, Tennessee, and Washington. The GAO questions the validity of test results citing concerns about the methods and targets of the tests.
Critics question the validity of GAO's findings. In open letters to Congress, Dr. Charles W. Thomas, director of the Center for Studies in Criminology & Law at the University of Florida, and Charles Logan, professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, objected strongly to the report's findings. According to Logan, "It [the report] represents no new research of its own...and the review is so consistently one-sided and negative that it reaches the point of dishonesty."
A primary issue raised by both Thomas and Logan concerns the GAO's operating premise that private and public facilities considered for study must be exactly alike before an accurate analysis can be conducted. For example, the GAO report criticized several of the studies for comparing older state-run facilities with newer private prisons of a different design.
According to Thomas, an analysis of identical facilities would disregard the innovation and efficiency in private facility design, which yields the greatest cost benefits. Similarly, Logan argues that the point of privatization is to do things differently from the government. "To insist that all comparison facilities be as similar as possible is to disallow the differences that privatization is supposed to be producing," he says.
Another issue raised was that of American Correctional Association (ACA) accreditation. The report did not strongly weigh ACA accreditation because, according to the report, it "means only that a facility has met minimum standards," Thomas points out that ACA requirements surpass those of any federal or state agency, making them the most demanding objective standards to which a corrections facility can aspire. …