Monday, June 04, 2012

Prisons: We're doing something wrong.

Think Progress created a nice display of how prison populations breakdown in the world.

The United States has large and growing prison populations. But we seem unaware. Add to that the (further) eschewed statistics showing that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to get picked up, get incarcerated, and receive longer sentences.

This situation gets little attention, and deserves more interest, and concern.

But it's not the only issue.

Then there is the private industry side of this. This has been a somewhat quiet shift. Between 2000 and 2009 the private prison population went from 6.3% to 8% of the total population. Along the way, there has been a growth in the lobbying dollars to spread around, now well over $2,000,000. And in 2010, they had 35 federal lobbyist at work. It is a quite profitable business.

Corrections Corporation of America is the largest of these private prison companies, and continues to pioneer this industry...feel free to be made uncomfortable.

(Emphasis added.)
For two decades, CCA was a member of a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a nationwide organization made up of corporations and state legislators. At an ALEC meeting in December 2009, where CCA employees were present, according to NPR’s reporting, the group crafted the model legislation that would later become Arizona’s SB1070 and a host of other similar bills across the country. 
The bills CCA has lobbied on this year include a number of appropriations related to Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detentions, which made up 12 percent of the company’s revenue last year, according to CCA’s 2010 annual report. 
In last month’s quarterly statement, the company announced a quarterly revenue increase of 5.6 percent, which the company largely attributed to new federal contracts.
CCA didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, but in other statements they have denied that they try to influence the political process. 
Paul Ashton told The Minnesota Independent that many of the legislative policies CCA was close to as a longtime member of ALEC, for instance the “three-strikes-you’re-out” rule, benefit the company’s bottom line. 
“In order for a private prison company to make money, there has to be people in prison,” Ashton said. “In order for them to have an increasing share of the market and in order for them to increase their revenue, there have to be more people in their facility, they have to stay their longer, and they have to come back.” 
It’s been almost two years since the privately-run prison in Appleton has held prisoners. But in early 2012, the prison’s owner, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), expects to fill Appleton’s Prairie Correctional Facility and another facility in Colorado with 3,256 inmates from California. 
In the last ten years, the revenue of CCA, the country’s biggest private prison company, has almost doubled, according to their annual reports. Critics say that CCA’s success, and even the likely reopening of the prison in Appleton, stems from their use of lobbying and campaign donations to push through tougher crime laws and increase detainment of illegal immigrants. 
Prison privatization contracts are designed by policy makers. It’s important for these companies to have a political strategy to increase their market share,” Paul Ashton, author of a recent report on private prisons for the Justice Policy Institute, said in a conference call Wednesday. Private prison companies “game the system,” he said, by pushing to increase market share, which in the private prison business means putting more people in prison. 
Prison size and prison populations as a profit center. That is wrong, just wrong.

One reason for these moves is a hope to cut costs for states. Trouble is that many of these privatization moves have proven to not actually work. One example is Chicago, where they sold off the parking meters, but now get bills when the new owners feel they are not getting the profits they expected. So, after selling off the income for a one time payment, they are now paying out to the private operator. That doesn't sound right, does it?

And, as some have reported, the savings from selling prisons are also in doubt, when properly analyzes.

(Emphasis added.)
A series of studies has also cast doubt on the private prison industry's main selling point: efficiency. Research across numerous states has shown that the promised savings from private prisons can be illusory at best. Cost comparisons often fail to account for extra administrative expenses borne by the state, or differences in health care costs for sickly inmates who normally remain in state supervision. 
"It's a real gamble for states to say, 'Gee, we're going to save a lot of money this way,'" said Zach Schiller, research director at Policy Matters Ohio, which did several studies analyzing Ohio's sale of a state prison to Corrections Corporation of America. "The idea that we should do this because we need money on a one-time basis seems like awfully short-term thinking. If we want to talk about what our needs are for the budget, and what our needs are for housing prisoners, let's look at those on a long-term basis and see what the best decisions are." 
But estimated savings often come down to how those calculations are made, and outside researchers have questioned the numbers. In Arizona, for example, a 2010 report from the state's auditor general showed that it cost the state more to house prisoners in private facilities than public prisons after factoring in administrative costs and adjusting for the types of medical care provided to less healthy inmates who tended to be housed in public facilities. And in Florida, where lawmakers this week could decide whether to privatize more than two dozen state prisons, reports about private prisons from the state's legislative research office note, "cost savings estimates are subject to caveats and should be evaluated cautiously." 
State officials have argued that selling and outsourcing the prison will generate $3 million in cost savings each year. But a report from Policy Matters Ohiocalculated that selling the Lake Erie prison would actually cost more in the long term than if the state continued to own the property and pay off the construction bonds. That's because the state has to pay Corrections Corporation of America a $3.8 million annual ownership fee for housing state prisoners, in addition to the prisoner per-diem costs laid out in the contract. 

This is a flawed approach. And, like the treatment of people of different races, it deserves for more interest and discussion.

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