The Great Prison Libertarian Debate: Private Vs. Federal

by Craig Boudreau

With the release of the Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) report on safety issues at private prisons, their use has been called into question.

The federal government started using private prisons as a means to help cut down on overcrowding in federal prisons in 1997. Privatization was supposed to reduce costs, but the OIG report showed that private prisons are marginally less expensive, and their higher rate of issues could potentially have a cancelling effect on any savings.

On the issue of contraband, Benjamin Davis, research and policy analyst for In the Public Interest — a firm that researches the impact of privatization — points The Daily Caller News Foundation to Michigan.

When Michigan’s Department of Corrections was looking to save some money, it employed the private company Aramark. According to a study done by In The Public Interest, it found that shortly thereafter, Aramark effectively cut kitchen employees’ pay in half and stopped some safety training courses.

Employees looking to make up the financial slack began to operate as couriers for inmates, who would pay them for their service, and began trafficking contraband into the prison. In the first seven months of Aramark’s contract, 74 employees were banned from Michigan’s prisons. In contrast, the public employees that worked there before Aramark took over only received five such banishments in the preceding five years.

A source from a public relations firm that studies this relationship counters that claim, by saying that it is possible that, “private prisons are more diligent in locating and confiscating contraband.”

However, Davis points to places like the Lake Erie Correctional Facility in Ohio in response. It was the first ever state prison sold to a private company — Corrections Corporation of America — and after taking over operations, four people were arrested that were trying to smuggle contraband into the prison. State audits found after the privatization, “patterns of inadequate staffing, delays in medical treatment and ‘unacceptable living conditions’ inside the prison.”

“We understand that it’s a private entity now, and that it’s for-profit,” Conneaut Councilman Neil LaRusch told The Huffington Post in 2013. “[B]ut nothing can come at the expense of the safety and security of our citizens.”

While the OIG report does lay out what appear to be bigger problems in the private prisons more so than the federally-run ones, there could be an issue with the small number of prisons studied overall.

“It’s really small. That should raise at least some questions about the utility in extrapolating too much from the data,” the public relations source said. “This is kind of like if you took a focus group of 12 people voting in the Republican primary and then said it was exemplary of the entirety of the Republican voting base in a whole state.”

“Maybe it tells you something about the whole electorate, or maybe it tells you something about those 12 people,” they concluded.

Davis agrees the study has its flaws.

“The biggest issue for me is that every private prison in Department of Justice’s (DOJ) report is a federal CAR (Criminal Alien Requirement) facility (I’m pretty sure),” Davis told TheDCNF. “What about the violence at private state prisons and how does that compare with the violence at public state prisons? What about private vs. public county jails?

“Point being, the comparisons made in the DOJ’s report are important, and we should continue looking at points of comparison with prisons elsewhere.”

As for the CAR prisons, the ACLU published a report in 2014 noting they are privately-run, and, “house exclusively non-citizens; and they are low-custody institutions with lesser security requirements than the medium and maximum-security institutions run directly by BOP.”

The ACLU also notes, of five CAR prisons in Mexico, inmates face time in isolation cells for very minor infractions like complaining about the food; not speaking “English in America, face racial slurs from guards, and have more limited access to things like treatment and education — since most are ‘presumed’ to be deported after their time is up, even though many are not.”

The public relations firm source acknowledges that there are some problems with private prisons, but also thinks a lot of that may be a problem with over-criminalization.

“A lot of these folks are in on drug offenses, and we know the War on Drugs pretty aggressively targets people who maybe shouldn’t be in jail,” the source told TheDCNF. “If anything, on my read, this report is a reminder to get on with some criminal justice reforms and quit using the topic as a political football.”

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