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Are private prisons worth the cost? Ctd.

By Suzy Khimm

Earlier this week, I questioned whether private prisons are actually more cost-effective and better run than public facilities, pointing to an Arizona study showing how the industry has fallen short of its promises. In response, Will Wilkinson argues that he would oppose private prisons "especially were they more efficient" (his emphasis). Writing for the Economist, Wilkinson points out that there are inherently perverse incentives guiding for-profit prison companies:

From an economic point of view, we should expect firms that compete for and rely on government contracts, such as weapons manufacturers and prison operators, to maximise the spread between the amount billed and the actual cost of delivering the service. If contractors can get away with providing less value for money than would the government-run alternative, they will. Moreover, contractors have every incentive to make themselves seem necessary.…The great hazards of contracting out incarceration "services" is that private firms may well turn out to be even more efficient and effective than unions in lobbying for policies that would increase prison populations.

If there were a robust watchdog to ensure that private prisons were delivering as promised -- without skimping on value and jeopardizing public safety -- Wilkinson might have less cause for worry. Unfortunately, in Arizona and elsewhere, there's very little oversight to determine whether private prison operators are cutting corners to help their bottom line. In Arizona, private contractors aren't required to build prisons to state specifications, and they don't even need to share data with the state government about escapes or crimes committed within their facilities.

A 2008 bill drafted by then-governor Janet Napolitano would have strengthened regulation and oversight of the industry, making privately run facilities more accountable to the public. But the legislation was successfully defeated by the powerful private prison lobby -- which, as Wilkinson surmises, has proved enormously effective at persuading lawmakers to support unchecked growth of private facilities and the prison population as a whole.

If public officials actually wanted to save money on incarceration, they might do well to heed Adam Serwer's advice:

The way to save money on prisons isn't to give contracts to private companies that will lowball costs and cut corners, it's to be less punitive, more willing to consider alternatives to incarceration like geriatric release and outpatient imprisonment, and to adopt anti-recidivism measures that actually work. In other words, the way to save money on corrections is to have fewer people in prison.

Suzy Khimm is a political reporter in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones.

By Suzy Khimm  |  August 25, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
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It seems like we should be able to regulate the amount of profit that a for-profit prison operation is able to take, but I whole heartedly agree with the takeaway that if we want to spend less on prisons we should find ways to lock less people up.

Posted by: MosBen | August 25, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

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