Privatize the Prisons?

There has been talk about states selling their prison systems to private companies and allowing them to run the correctional system.  Is this a good idea?

At first, it looks great: the taxpayers can reduce the high cost of building, maintaining, guarding, providing medical care, and programming for offenders.  Why not let a private company take-over the costs?  The state would probably agree to some fee per inmate–which would be much lower than the present costs.  All the laws about incarceration and parole would remain the same, determined by the legislatures.

At present, because of the “Great Recession,” many states are looking at cutting this high expense.  But there are two factors that may have raised the cost of prisons beyond what anyone expected.

A couple of years ago, National Public Radio reported on Folsom Prison in California.  When Johnny Cash gave his concert there in 1968, it was a model for the entire nation.  See story at:

Today, it’s a disaster which may actually be making the public less safe than ever.  Even as most of the progress and programs have been cut at prisons like Folsom, the costs are higher than ever.  Why?

The NPR report suggests two reasons that may apply to prisons in all states:

1.  The “get tough on crime” laws of the past twenty years.

2.  Strong public unions of prison workers.

Let’s look at the first reason.

In the years since 1968 legislatures across the country decided to “get tough on crime.” That meant, usually, more incarceration penalties for more crimes and longer sentences for existing crimes.  The result has quadrupled prison populations–which states have to pay for.  Promoters of the get tough idea didn’t anticipate the consequences of putting significantly more offenders behind bars.

Though many people have the opinion that criminals should be locked-up and “throw away the key,” that’s not realistic.  Almost all offenders, except the most dangerous, are released at some point.  Without adequate programming for education, job skills, chemical dependency treatment, and mental health treatment these lower-level offenders come out with the same criminal tendencies they entered with–or worse.

People say, “So what?  I’m not going to spend tax dollars for social workers to help criminals.”  Those same people fail to realize that an “unimproved” offender coming out of prison poses the greatest threat to public safety.  Besides the heightened incidence of re-offending, the costs of police, courts, lawyers, jurors, and prisons is far greater than the cost to tax payers of the prison programs.

At some point, we must decide as a community how much we want to imprison people.  Most studies have shown that except for the violent, most dangerous offenders, close supervision by probation officers as the offenders live in the community not only is the best prevention for further criminal activity, but it is also the cheapest.

Of course, show me a politician that is courageous enough to point out these costs to the taxpayers and say, “let’s put fewer people in prison.”  Instead, we’re looking at privatizing the prison system.  It will reduce the direct costs to the taxpayer but won’t reduce the recidivism rate–since prisons like Folsom Prison in California now have some of the highest rates.  In 1968 they had the lowest rate.

What should we do?  In my next post, I’ll look at California and the power of the public employee union and its effect on the costs of the prison system there.

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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