Private Prisons – Are they worth the Risks?
July 17, 2015
The recent riot at the Management Training Corporation ASPC-Kingman prison complex keeps bringing back the same questions over and over again. Since the opening window back in 1984, private prison contractors have expanded their grip on governments seeking to save money on prison related costs. This caused corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, and Management Training Corporation (MTC) to spread out their territory and capture a majority of the industrial prison complex. Without a doubt, CCA is the better of the three as their commitment to public safety exceeds those of the others. This is based on their dedicated training programs and involvement in the communities.
A lucrative business, many states, including Arizona have been tempted doing business via a hybrid governance that has yet to be perfected and solidified with positive and gainful results. Well over a 3 billion dollar a year industry, one would expect constant and beneficial logistical and operational improvements in their services but unfortunately, the opposite is true. For the sake of pleasing stockholders and maintaining a pre-determined profit margin, these prison for profit organizations and secretly operated corporations are risking public safety at the cost of their profit making strategies and schemes.
This impacts many areas including economic and social stabilities in those communities they seek to do business in. since the lack of transparency and accountability is present, it is difficult to measure effectiveness and performance standards that appear to be deficient in acceptable levels whenever a crisis occurs.
Suggesting that the privatization of prisons is an economically lucrative corporate venture it is reported as well as purported to provide taxpayers a cost savings of up to 20% annually due to lower wage and benefit costs for labor, lower procurement costs, and a more and efficient administrative operation that often operates without the close scrutiny or monitoring agreed upon when the contracts are signed and delivered.
Conflicting research findings make it difficult to accurately assess cost and performance and since the Arizona Department of Corrections has done away with cost comparison studies in 2010, there is no accurate method to determine value and benefits of such partnerships. Cost Savings –those who favor privatization claim that private prisons are more cost effective because they operate more efficiently.
A careful review of the research conducted over the scope of more than twenty years or more, reveals a clear consensus that when all cost factors are included in the analysis, the available evidence does not support the contention that private corrections are more cost-effective or efficient than those publicly operated. However, under current conditions, Arizona is obligated to fulfill its legal responsibilities to fill the contracts as signed.
A 1998 report found no evidence of greater efficiency reported in studies conducted at that point in time (Cheung, 2004). Similarly, a BJA study found no evidence of greater cost savings, improved services, or conditions of confinement in private prisons, and the rate of major incidents was higher (Austin & Coventry, 2001:38 & 57). The Legislature needs to pay attention to this category of “major incidents” as traditionally, many disturbances are downplayed to be minor in nature but often not linked to other institutional problems thus isolating the severity and events deliberately.
There is no denial ASPC Kingman has been problematic – the facts illustrated a severe breach of security in the 2010 escape of three convicted murderers who while fugitives, killed an innocent couple in New Mexico just to facilitate more resources for their escape status. Since 2010, after the DOC promised better oversight, there have been numerous deaths, disturbances, and other serious operational flaws reported.
There appears to be a distinct disconnect between profit strategy and the public safety strategy. Essentially, it comes down to the fact these business are in the market for profits and money, and thus, it is safe to say, they are going to take some shortcuts when they can (Mattera, Khan, and Nathan, 2003:15).
Litigation assessments of the cost of incarceration must also consider the economic consequences of litigation. Private prison corporations have been the subject of numerous lawsuits stemming from charges of abuse, violence, negligence, wrongful death, and other factors related to mismanagement. There are several large claims outstanding on the Kingman complex not yet resolved and it is with some level of certainty, this recent riot will add fuel to the contention, ASPC Kingman is unsafe and in dire need of an overhaul.
Rising litigation and its accompanying costs are evidenced in CCA’s annual report to the Securities Exchange Commission (2010:53). Despite an admittance of negligent responsibility for the escapes, it took eight months and a threat to terminate MTC’s contract before the security defects were corrected by the company. Other security breaches included burned-out perimeter lights, other broken security equipment, and a lax, high-turnover culture in which MTC’s green, undertrained staff and rookie supervisors ignored alarms, left long gaps between patrols of the perimeter, left doors leading out of some buildings open and unwatched, didn’t alert the state or local police until hours after the escape, and failed in all manner of basic security practices (Ortega, 2011).
The problem appears to be deeper as there is a cultural and operational culture that seems to conclude “their use of less costly employees produced a less than acceptable level of public safety or inmate care and that “privately operated prisons appear to have systemic problems in maintaining secure facilities [which] can reflect problems in policy and procedures, in technology, and in staff capabilities.”
The “greener” aka less experienced workforce, contributes to the fact there are more likely more future security lapses in these fundamental security procedures. The “greenness” of the workforce may pertain not only to line staff, but to midlevel supervisory staff as well (Camp & Gaes, 2001:16). Executive staff were also found to be “ineffective” and lacking a basic understanding of their roles and responsibilities (AZDOC Report on Kingman Escapes, 2010:6). This is a discerning issue not addressed in a persistent and sustained manner by current Arizona Department of Corrections executive staff. Hence, there are lapses of contractual oversights that may contribute to such operational and facility failures. This may not be the case for other facilities that are run and operated more efficiently and with more of a commitment to public safety and training of staff.
Staffing Vacancies and excessive turnover is a constant problem. The day after the Kingman riot, MTC posted job vacancies on the web in a late attempt to show active recruitment for staff. . It is well accepted in the research that private prisons lower costs through paying lower wages and benefits. Consequently, staff vacancies are a problem common to private prisons that is directly linked to institutional safety and the provision of effective services necessary to reduce recidivism. It is not unusual for private prisons to run a vacancy rate of 15 to 20 % at times while their turnover rates average as high as 53 % in comparison to state prison statistics.
To put this into a more understandable perspective, when you combine a 15 per cent vacancy rate with a 30 per cent “green” or less experienced work force, you are running the facility at 55 per cent efficiency.
This is a very low standard to allow or permit and the Arizona Department of Corrections should have actively pursued arguments to raise the efficiency rate above 70 per cent and match their own public prison vacancy rates so that the ASPC Kingman complex was operating at an acceptable operational efficiency rate. One has to wonder how such a low performance rate could pass the annual audit standards of the Arizona Department of Corrections.
A study conducted for the Bureau of Prisons on the effectiveness and quality of federal private prisons concluded: “Given the apparent relationship between staff separations, staff experience, and inmate misconduct, private companies must either adopt a new innovative strategy towards corrections, or they will have to increase pay and/or benefits to attract and retain experienced employees. MTC has not pursued such innovative strategies and is lagging behind in accomplishing such a feat any time soon.
Advocates of prison privatization have argued that private prisons can pay workers less, offer fewer benefits, and still deliver a product that is as good or better than that provided by the public sector. The evidence to date contradicts such an encompassing assertion (Camp & Gaes, 2001:16).” Of greatest concern is the indisputable fact that private prisons exist to make a profit. It is in their economic interests to reduce costs by maintaining full facilities, reducing staff wages and benefits, reducing institutional expenses associated with safety and sanitation, and reducing critical care services and programming.
Reference materials cited from: An Assessment of the Risks and Benefits of Prison Privatization. Prepared for the Citizens’ Advisory Board of the New Hampshire State Prison for Women by: Elaine Rizzo, Ph.D., Professor of Criminal Justice, Saint Anselm College Margaret Hayes, Ph.D., RN, Associate Professor of Nursing, Science and Health, Regis College January 30, 2012