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Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Prison-Industrial Complex

The State of California recently announced it will expand utilization of corporate corrections firms to handle the growing number of inmates in its state prison systems. (#1) The decision by Governor Schwarzenegger seems to embody much of the flawed thinking about the obligations of government and fantasies of solving public problems with corporate efficiency. Critics of the practice have already coined a term for the concept: The Prison-Industrial Complex.

Punishment for Profit

Unlike ANY other responsibility of government to meet public needs, the idea of outsourcing law enforcement and (ahem) "corrections" functions to private firms is completely inappropriate. That's because unlike many of the other things government often provides for public benefit such as roads, schools, libraries and parks which are figuratively "goods", law enforcement and corrections would be better termed as "bads" or at least necessary evils of a civil society. No want wants more police or prisons, we only provide them in response to the need.

Outsourcing corrections to private firms creates an incentive for those firms to increase profits. If you build and operate prisons, how do you possibly improve profits? You handle more volume by building larger prisons or you improve margins on those you already house by cutting costs. We certainly don't WANT more prisons and there is a floor beneath which incarceration costs cannot drop without violating inmates' human rights.

If you firmly believe that inmates shouldn't be coddled with cable TV, work out facilities that put Gold's Gym to shame or law libraries that allow them to obtain a law degree then file endless appeals and clog the court systems, well, I'd agree with you. However, the emergence of ultra high-security, ultra-lockdown prisons hasn't really eliminated the major problem with corrections policies in the United States -- the fact that most inmates LEAVE prison with far more violent tendencies than when they entered. Essentially, our state and federal prisons have become centers of higher learning for gang members who specializing in the most damaging forms of crime in the country, drug distribution and murder.

If one assumes that these corporate firms won't be able to stimulate demand for more cells to increase profits, they are likely to focus on costs per inmate, either in funds spent per prisoner or by lower wages for guards, wardens, etc. The result is almost guaranteed to be that corporate prisons will operate using "lock-down" practices common at existing high-security prisons. Again, however, this has been proven to be ineffective in stopping "in-house" communication between prisoners and certainly eliminates the chance of inmates getting any "correction" while incarcerated.

The Moral Hazard of Outsourcing Corrections

If the society under a particular government entity is viewed as a virtual "factory" that produces good things overall, criminals in that society might (in a very crass sense) be considered an "effluent" from that factory. It might not be possible to operate the factory with zero "pollution" but it is certainly the society's obligation to minimize that pollution to the extent possible. Outsourcing prisons to private firms and especially firms operating in other states or jurisdictions produces a moral hazard that essentially masks the true cost of handling the problem, lessening the likelihood the problem will be corrected at the root.

Consider the impact of drug laws and the inequities in their application in the United States. If you get arrested for drunk driving and happen to have money or power (Mel Gibson, Paris Hilton, Patrick Kennedy, etc.), you make an appearance on a talk show, spend a week or two at the Betty Ford clinic (or not…) and pay a fine. If you get arrested for drug possession (Robert Downy Junior, Scott Weiland, Rush Limbaugh, etc.) even several times, you make a few talk show appearances, check in at a rehab clinic, and all is forgotten. If you are middle class and your child does any of these things, you send them off to rehab and counseling courtesy of your (albeit expensive) health care benefits from work.

Do those same things and commit the additional offense of being poor or without healthcare insurance and you are on your own against the full weight of the entire United States system of justice. FOR THE SAME THING. If it is just and cost-effective to spend $15,000 on drug rehab for your suburban teenager who tried pot or ecstasy a few times, why is it not cost-effective to try the same treatment for someone in the inner city with an absentee parent and a much tougher situation than your spoiled brat? It has to be cheaper than $40,000 per year in San Quentin, right?

Even if immmediate costs of incarceration are cheaper on an outsourced basis, are they truly any less expensive in the long term? The money shipped out of state to a corporate corrections firm would likely be better spent on programs in local schools and expanded police patrols to allow problems with teens, etc. to be caught earlier before they advance into more violent or damaging crimes. Attempting to save money on prison costs is really an attempt to optimize the wrong variable in the problem. Once the practice begins, the corporations profiting from the flawed policy will make it very difficult to change course.

Externalizing Consequences of Poor State Policies

The flip side to the moral hazard of a state outsourcing its prison population to locations outside the state lies in the eventual release of those inmates. Let's assume that cheap land and low labor costs in Mississippi or Georgia lead to a boom of corporate prison construction in those states. Given the high recidivism rate of inmates returned to society, one hundred thousand California inmates leaving California to wait out a prison term in Mississippi or Georgia won't all return to their neighborhoods in California after serving their time. A large percentage will likely stay in Mississippi or Georgia. Again, many of these prisoners won't be pickpockets or embezzlers, at least when they get OUT of prison. Is this the kind of risk states are willing to pay for a few jobs and tax revenue on the real estate of a corporate prison?

If you live in a state with cheap land and/or low wages, do you really want to see prisoners imported on a wholesale basis from large cities, incarcerated in giant institutions of advanced criminal training, THEN RELEASED in your community? This is exactly analogous to having other states operate nuclear power plants in their state for cheaper electricity then storing the spent fuel in your backyard. Maybe that state needing the electricity should find ways to conserve energy or promote alternatives rather than storing their toxic waste in your community. The same principle applies to criminals. California and other states pursuing corporate corrections should focus more on creating fewer criminals rather than exporting their problem to other states.

The United States has among the highest incarceration rates of any industrialized nation in the world. Is outsourcing prisons to Corporate America really the best idea we have for addressing the problem?


#1) http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061021/ap_on_re_us/california_prisons