Emerging Issues on Privatizing Prisons

By Austin, James; Coventry, Garry | Corrections Forum, November/December 2001 | Go to article overview

Emerging Issues on Privatizing Prisons


Austin, James, Coventry, Garry, Corrections Forum


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The state of corrections has come under attack by many during the past decade. Many contend that the current state of affairs will not work in the 21st century. Some argue that the public sector is incapable of handling the complex and changing dynamics associated with corrections, and therefore more prisons need to be handed over to the private sector; others argue that private industry should not be a part of the public matter of penalizing offenders of crime. Although the private sector has had a long history of involvement in corrections, private prisons make up less than 5 percent of the current market. This study offers a review of the history of privatization, presents a review of relevant research on the issues involved, and compares some of the major findings from the National Survey of State Prison Privatization, 1997, conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (1998) and the Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1995, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1997a), on the benefits and costs associated with private- and public-managed prison facilities.

Although private prisons tend to house mostly minimum-security inmates, the findings from this report suggest that private prisons operate much the same as public facilities. Private prisons offer only modest cost savings, which are basically a result of moderate reductions in staffing patterns, fringe benefits, and other labor-related costs. No evidence was found to show that the existence of private prisons would have a dramatic effect on how nonprivate prisons operate.

Current Trends in Privatization

* It is estimated that worldwide there are 184 privately operated correctional facilities, which hold 132,346 inmates.

* Within the United States, a total of 158 private correctional facilities are operating in 30 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Texas has the most facilities (43), followed by California (24), Florida (10), and Colorado (9). Most private correctional facilities tend to be concentrated in the Southern and Western United States.

* Another 26 private facilities operate in 3 other countries, with Australia (12) and the United Kingdom (10) topping the list.

* Total revenues allocated to private prisons and jails are estimated at $1 billion.

* Despite rapid growth in the number of private correctional facilities, they represent only a small share of the entire correctional facilities market. With jail and prison populations totaling approximately 1.7 million in the United States, the estimated 116,626-bed capacity of private correctional facilities makes up less than 7 percent of the U.S. market. Less than 5 percent (52,370 inmates) of the total 1.2 million U.S. prison population is housed in private facilities.

Prior Research Findings on Privatization

* Few studies have been completed regarding the impact that privatizing prisons has on costs, protection from harm, recidivism, and conditions of confinement.

* A major conclusion reached from the few studies completed is that privately operated prisons function as well as publicly operated prisons. With respect to operating costs, privately operated prisons can reduce expenditures in those markets in which public employee benefit rates are relatively high in comparison to national rates.

* Management problems that have occurred with privatized prisons can usually be linked to poorly drafted contracts, lack of oversight by contracting agencies, and transferring inmates with classification level requirements to private prisons that do not have the resources and capabilities to handle these inmates.

* Evidence shows that the presence of private prisons has encouraged public facilities to adopt similar cost-saving strategies in staff deployment and procurement policies.

* Evidence also shows that private entities can construct new facilities faster and cheaper than can be done by firms in the public sector. …

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