Comment Of The Day: “Open Forum!” Thread On For-Profit Prisons

Finally having the opportunity to read what the recent “Open Form!” necessitated by my enforced absence from blogging for two days, hath wrought, I encountered several deserving Comment of the Day candidates. I will be choosing the winner from the wonderfully entertaining rumble among multiple Ethics Alarms stalwarts on the alleged “school-to-prison” pipeline and a whole bundle of other ethics topics (proper treatment of elected officials on social media, appropriate treatment of citizen criticism by elected officials, and others) imminently, but for now, let’s focus on the topic of for-profit prisons, an ethics issue under-discussed here previously. In this case, the Comment of the Day format is especially useful, because this excellent post is buried deeply among  117 others.

Here is James M.’s Comment of the Day on the topic, from the open forum of 8/28/2019…

As someone who worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections for 25 years, I think I can fairly assess both the advantages and problems associated with privately-run prisons. Contracting with various companies to provide various prison services can produce some substantial cost savings to the public, but has some negative effects that aren’t always considered. The Arizona Department of Corrections privatized several different areas during my career there, including medical care, food service, and some rehabilitative programs. The department has also held portions of the inmate population in units run by private contractors.

Advantages of privatization included direct cost savings (with private prisons costing less per bed) and the ability to share prison construction costs with the contractor, allowing the construction to become part of a multi-year contract, rather than an up-front payment. The direct cost savings can be difficult to fairly assess, as contractors would often refuse to accept those inmates who were most expensive to house, either due to having major medical issues, a tendency toward harassment litigation, or membership in a prison gang. Since the private prisons had some security issues that led to inmate escapes, departmental staff also spent considerable time screening inmates before they would be considered for placement in the private prison units. The complaint from ADC staff involved in these assessments was that “Of course they’re cheaper! If I got to pick and choose only the inmates who were least difficult to deal with, I could run my unit more cheaply, too!”

Privatization of food services produced direct cost savings, but increased the need for security oversight of the area and precipitated numerous lawsuits about the quality of the food. I was responsible for reviewing my unit’s kitchen for a couple of years: The food service contractor’s poorly-paid employees were frequently unprofessional, corrupt, or incompetent. I regularly had to deal with inmate complaints about the contract kitchen workers. Having once worked through a violent disturbance precipitated by bad food, I had no intention of doing so again. The food we served might not have been great, but it damned well better be cooked properly and served in appropriate portions.

As the unit’s grievance coordinator, I had to deal with inmate complaints about the medical care. The contractor was not able to keep as many medical staff on site as had previously been the norm, doctors and other medical staff were expected to see more inmates per day, and treatment delays were common. As with food service, this was more cost-efficient up front, but at the cost of increased lawsuits and avoidable delays in inmate medical treatment.

The rehabilitative programming provided through private contractors generally worked well, was professionally run, and was regarded by the inmate population as worthwhile and beneficial. Not all inmates really care to improve themselves or change their lives, but some do, and those programs allowed them to do so.

The most significant problem with private prisons has nothing to do with all those complaints. The problem is that private prison contractors exert political pressure to increase their own business. If a state politician wanted to reform the prison system, shifting toward punishments other than mass incarceration, he could face tremendous pressure from these prison contractors. Politicians at the state level knew that just talking about the topic would guarantee that the contractors would throw thousands of dollars into their political opponents’ campaign funds. I spoke with ADC’s Director many years ago about the possibility of expanding carefully supervised home arrest programs instead of incarceration, since we now have the technology to track a monitored inmate’s every move. An inmate on home arrest could still hold a job and be with his family. If he didn’t attend required treatment programs or doesn’t follow the rules, it’s not like we lack prisons to put him in. I was told at the time that we were just waiting for the costs to come down. Well, the costs have come down. The problem is that there is no political traction for such a program because the damned privates jump all over anyone who proposes such a reform.


7 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Open Forum!” Thread On For-Profit Prisons

  1. It is amazing how affordable state representatives are in Arizona. Having just read Joseph Stedino’s book about the AzScam corruption sting, state legislators strike me as low budget grifters.

    By the same token, if the private operators have built a facility they haven’t amortized yet, I can understand how they’d want to keep the facility profitable for its useful life.

  2. Great comment.

    Rereading this comment now, it occurs to me that some of the same arguments regarding lower cost that apply to for-profit prisons also apply to the arguments about the Postal Service and its competitors.

    Companies such as FedEx or UPS can be more than competitive with the USPS because a) They don’t have to maintain the infrastructure that the Post Office has to maintain in every nook and cranny of this country, and b)They can pick and choose where they offer delivery and pickup — they don’t have to drive endless country roads to pick up or deliver one letter at a time. The cost savings are obvious.

    The Post Office is something that is specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, which gives us all a good idea of the high importance the Founders placed on it.

    While I am an earnest advocate of small government, I believe that this is something that the country needs to provide (and yes subsidize as needed), just as it does its armed forces.

    • The Post Office provides another niche service that ONLY it can: transport of classified materials.
      Only the USPS can provide continuous chain-of-custody for sensitive and classified parcels by maintaining that the parcel is always in the hands of an employee of the U.S. Government.


      • Except when those ’employees of the US Government’ are unaccountable private contractors who work for pennies on the dollar.

        My local mail is not delivered by a ‘US Government employee.’ The local post office simply shrugs off complaints, and mail is routinely marked ‘delivered’ in tracking services when it sits at the wrong boc/address/city, or is still (proven to be) on the carrier’s truck. The metrics look good yet the mail is not delivered.

  3. That is a fascinating story, and a perfect example of the famous statement by somebody (Clarence Darrow?) that in order to have enough liberty, it is necessary to have too much.

    The political clout developed by the private prison companies act in direct opposition to their stated purpose — to benefit the public by providing more cost-effective service. This is exactly the same result as allowing public sector unions to organize and lobby the government. The bottom line is money buying political what-me-worry when it comes to inefficiencies and costs.

    Thank you for the enlightening comment, well worthy of “of they day” recognition.

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