When the private prison movement began in earnest in the 1980s, the justification for it was that private companies could do the job more efficiently and cheaply than government.
The first private prison in the country opened in 1984 in Tennessee. In Arizona, the first private prison opened in Marana in 1993. There are now more than 250 private prisons in the country and 11 in Arizona, five run by the state and six by the federal government.
So how much money are we saving by having private companies run state and federal prisons?
None. In fact, recent investigations by the Arizona Republic, the Associated Press and prison watchdog groups, the American Friends Service Committee and The Sentencing Project, have shown private prisons are actually costing taxpayers more money than if the government ran the prisons.
And the government knows it. According to the Associated Press’s report earlier this month about federal incarceration of illegal immigrants, federal agencies, namely Homeland Security, have admitted private prisons cost more to operate and no longer use cost savings as the primary factor in awarding prison contracts.
And this year the Arizona Legislature, in the appropriation for a new prison, specifically exempted companies bidding on the contract from having to comply with a state law requiring a private operator demonstrate cost savings.
So if private prisons aren’t saving taxpayers any money why do we have them? What’s the point?
The fact that they even exist in the first place is an outrage. The idea that a group of people organized in a corporation would profit from the forced incarceration of human beings is abhorrent.
The only way for private companies to make money off running a prison is to pinch pennies everywhere – scrimp on security, save on food, be parsimonious with guard salaries.
And the result? Trouble.
The AFSC in February released a damning report detailing escapes, riots, deaths and beatings. The AP and Republic reports detailed corruption, high guard turnover, prisoner mistreatment and more. (On a tangential note, they also noted that private companies hired to provide healthcare to inmates are awful, provide substandard care and have been repeatedly sued by inmates and advocacy groups.)
These things also happen in government-run prisons, to be sure, but there at least there is supposed to be public accountability. Moreover, public prisons are subject to state and federal sunshine laws – the public, if it cares to, can examine records and other matters that reveal how well (or how poorly) a prison is run and insist on changes.
Not so with private prisons. AFSC said in its report that getting information about what goes on in private prisons was extremely difficult. It had to rely partly on lawsuits filed by prisoners for details about what goes on inside the walls of private prisons, especially the prisons contracted by the federal government where the reporting and oversight rules are lax.
The state is on the cusp of awarding a contract for a new prison. If private prisons don’t save money, or worse, cost more to run than if the Department of Corrections ran them, than there’s no point in having a private company run the new prison.
We, the public, are responsible for the people we incarcerate for breaking our laws. We should run the prisons, not some company looking to make a buck off another’s mistakes.