In an old Bob Newhart TV program, the producers of the local small town talk show within the show were trying to come up with a topic for the afternoon's episode. Over their coffee cups, they settled on, "Styrofoam: Modern Day Convenience or Satan’s Chalice?"
The two sides of the prison privatization issue remind me of that debate. Does it represent an abdication of government's duty, or a practical solution to a vexing problem?
The operation of prisons by private corporations on behalf of the federal government and local governments is a flashpoint of anger for some and a welcomed resource for others. Federal and local jurisdictions seek to maximize the investment of tax dollars in sensible solutions that reduce the burden on public coffers and provide public safety and needed programming and treatment for the growing population of U.S. inmates. More and more frequently they are turning to privatization. The public policy debate rages, but the data are in— private corrections corporations are winning more and more shares of corrections contracts and providing a return for investors in what is perceived as a one-way (up!) growth industry.
One such for-profit corporation reported a 15 percent rise in earnings in the second quarter of 2008. Its public communications documents all point to the benefits it provides— public safety, cost efficiency, economic and community development, and better inmate services. Those benefits, coupled with the fact that corrections costs take up more and more of states' annual budgets, leads some to say that privatization of prisons is welcomed relief in these turbulent economic times for government.
On the other hand, Grassroots Leadership is a nonprofit in the South that views prison privatization as an impediment to social justice. Its mission statement reads in part, "Grassroots Leadership's goal is to put an end to abuses of justice and the public trust by working to abolish for-profit private prisons."
Elsewhere on this website is a Research Brief that examines the recidivism rates of privatized prisons and publicly managed prisons. In a study of 22,000-plus released prisoners in Oklahoma, prisoners from the privatized prisons had a higher recidivism rate (33 percent) than prisoners from state-run or public prisons (30 percent).
This held true for male prisoners: there was a 35 percent recidivism rate for men released from private prisons and a 30 percent rate for men released from public prisons. For women, the results were reversed: 21 percent of women released from private prisons recidivated while only 27 percent of women from publicly managed prisons recidivated.
Look at the National Crime Prevention Council's Research Brief.
It’s too bad we can't resolve this problem in the 22 minutes allowed for a situation comedy like "Newhart" on TV. If you have a take on the issue, post a comment below and let us know.
Here's an interesting primer (from Cornell University in 2002) on the topic of prison privatization.
The Grassroots Leadership website has a resource page for those interested in the issue of prison privatization.