Emerging from a Different Kind of Prison?

There are the prisons we all recognize–utilitarian buildings constructed to hold lawbreakers–and then there are prisons of a less recognizable sort: rigid beliefs, the sorts of ideological commitments impervious to evidence.

Yesterday’s post referenced the copious academic literature analyzing one such ideological commitment.

As I noted in that post, for the past thirty-odd years, devotion to contracting-out (mis-labeled “privatization”) has been an article of faith with a lot of public managers and political science theorists, not to mention substantial numbers of folks in the business community that have profited from such contracts and the even higher percentage of nonprofit enterprises that have come to depend upon government funding.

This belief in the benefits of privatization has persisted despite significant amounts of research painting a considerably more nuanced picture.

Sometimes, however, reality really does bite. So I was interested in an article from the Idaho Statesman, reporting that the state will resume control of a prison that has been run by CCA, one of the largest private prison companies in the country.

An Associated Press report last year raised questions about how the Nashville, Tenn.,-based company was staffing the prison, and the state’s move is part of a larger debate over whether prison privatization works.

Over the past several decades, contractors have been brought in to run prisons, federal lockups and even county-level jails. The number of inmates housed in the facilities grew from 85,500 in 2000 to more than 128,000 in 2012, according to federal statistics.

Private prison operators have been repeatedly sued, amid allegations of rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity and contract fraud.
The Idaho Statesman article quoted University of North Florida criminal justice professor Michael Hallett, who has written a book on prison privatization. Hallett said the problems in Idaho reflect those seen nationwide.

“A private prison corporation operates just like an old-fashioned HMO, where the less they spend, the more they make,” Hallett said. “ … There’s lots of ways to game the system, through contract violations and even just legal contracts to house easier inmates.”

Idaho’s governor has been a longtime supporter of privatization, but the problems became too obvious for him to ignore. The situation is reminiscent of then-Governor Daniels’ belated admission that Indiana’s costly experiment with welfare privatization was a disaster.

The lesson today and yesterday isn’t that government should never contract out. The lesson is: the decision to contract for public services is more complicated than ideologues want to make it. Sometimes contracting is a good idea; often, it isn’t.

We deserve public managers who can tell the difference.