When state of Pennsylvania officials faced crushing budget cuts to the criminal justice system they took drastic steps to rectify the situation. One measure was to privatize a significant portion of corrections–to hand over operations, management, and control of some of its prisons to private companies, thereby eliminating state and county oversight and responsibility, and ultimately cost for the facilities.
What transpired from this private outsourcing of corrections can only be described as a constitutional nightmare. In exchange for increasing the number of juvenile offenders ordered to these now privately-run, for profit jails, judges received cash payments and other bribes. Basic constitutional guarantees of counsel, a fair trial, and humane prison conditions evaporated into a system of corruption, power, and greed. Pennsylvania officials faced one of the largest federal corruption stings in the history of corrections.
Which is why it is so troubling to read that Arizona is the latest state to consider expanding its corrections outsourcing to encompass every single prison in the state, and, most troubling of all, death row. As it stands, nearly 30 percent of the state’s prisoners are held in privately-run facilities, but those facilities are generally minimum and medium-security facilities. Those employees are, at least according to the Department of Justice, inexperienced and unaccustomed to dealing with violent offenders and those serving death sentences. If the proposed Arizona plan passes, it would make Arizona the first state to outsource death row.
Under the Arizona plan, the State would still oversee executions, but all day-to-day operations would fall in private hands. The state would pay a per-diem fee for each prisoner held on death row, which raises the specter of reinforcing financial incentives to execute prisoners since not only would the State bear the costs associated with sentencing appeals and executions, it would also pay “rent” to house, feed, and provide medical services for death row inmates.
Proponents of privatizing prisons argue that states already face that economic reality and the private sector manages those maintenance costs more efficiently at significant cost savings to tax-payers. According to supporters, what the state pays companies to operate these facilities is a fraction of the cost to state and county officials in large part because private entities do not share the same administrative costs associated with oversight and accountability of government entities. They rarely pay their employees wages and benefits comparable to state-run Department of Corrections employees and face fewer administrative reporting requirements.
But the most recent survey taken by the Department of Justice found that private prisons saved states little money. In fact, those states that witnessed significant savings in corrections did so by shutting down facilities and changing sentencing laws. In some instances, like in California, these changes were mandated by federal courts after a failure to properly fund corrections resulted in conditions deteriorating to the point of threatening the safety of staff and inmates on a daily basis.
Just like we are witnessing with the health care debate, the argument that the private sector always runs at an operational savings when compared to government entities is at best something requiring a second look. Administrative costs associated with Medicare are about 10% less than private health care entites. Corrections is no different, and the arguments for privatizing the state’s responsibility to those ordered to its care for rehabilitation and restitution presents even more delicate moral issues to tackle. If we’ve learned anything from the debacle in Pennsylvania, it is that profit motives always conflict with prisoner care and cannot be reconciled with the Constitution.
There are simply some things that should remain in the province of the government, and overseeing criminal justice matters is one of them. It is the only way to assure individual rights are not forgotten, because, as established by the framers, anyone can be labelled a criminal by the state, and the only difference between a democracy and tyranny is how it treats the accused.
photo courtesy of jgurbisz via Flickr