Private Prison Boom Shows Signs of Slowing

A private prison in Whiteville, Tenn., a town with 1,100 residents 60 miles east of Memphis, incarcerates as many convicted Wisconsin killers as any Wisconsin penal institution.

States seeking the cheapest way to jail people have shipped felons out of state rather than expand their own prisons. But studies show private prisons cost taxpayers nearly as much as public ones, and critics argue that punishing criminals shouldn't be left to organizations whose primary motive is profit.

With declining prison rates, states are moving more slowly toward prison privatization, rolling back or ending existing contracts, and not looking for new ones. Nebraska and New Mexico this year banned letting their private prisons take some out-of-state inmates. A similar measure failed in Georgia.

New Mexico, Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma, Hawaii and Wisconsin housed at least 20 percent of their prison population in private facilities last year. States such as Wisconsin and Hawaii export inmates to private prisons elsewhere.

More than 150 private correctional facilities operate in 31 mostly southern and western states. Texas has the most private prisons, 43, followed by California, 24, Florida, 10, and Colorado, nine. At the end of 2000, privately operated facilities housed 87,369 inmates, or 5.8 percent of state inmates, according to a Justice Department report issued Aug. 12.

Among the states, Texas (with 13,985 state inmates housed in private facilities) and Oklahoma (with 6,931) reported the largest number in 2000.

The inmate shuffle in this country, where 9.7 percent of black men aged 25 to 29 are behind bars, means urban centers lose their residents to distant rural jails. States accepting inmates from other states pump up their Census counts and therefore collect more funding through federal formulas that rely on the headcount.

Inmates also get counted for legislative apportionment and redistricting although they can't vote in most states. But states with what critics call "dungeons-for-dollars" also sometimes bear the medical costs of inmates, as well as risks associated with escapes and prison violence.

Evidence that states are turning away from prison privatization includes the closure of a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio in July, and California's decision this year to offer drug offenders treatment instead of jail time, said Michael Hallett, an expert on privatization.

"The privatization industry is a house that the drug war built," said Hallett, a professor of criminal justice at the University of North Florida. "Without the drug war, the industry is going to be in decline. We're seeing the beginnings of that."

States' fondness for private prisons has turned out to be a fad, not a long-term trend, said Ira Robbins, professor of criminal law at American University's Washington College of Law.

"It's now taken about 20 years to realize what the private companies promised has not come to fruition, and that a lot of the early criticisms are being proved true in terms of cost and accountability," Robbins said.

An analysis of prison privatization published earlier this year by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance found that rather than the projected 20 percent savings, the average savings from privatization was only about 1 percent. Most of that was achieved through lower labor costs. The study found private facilities' small savings result from having staffing levels about 15 percent lower than in public facilities.

Judy Greene, a criminal-justice researcher with the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation, said states are shying away from privatization because of contract under-performance.

But Steve Owen, spokesman for Corrections Corp. of America, the publicly-traded company that benefited most from the past decade's boom in private prisons, said states aren't backing off prison privatization, and many states are still operating at over-capacity even with a stabilizing inmate population. Since 1983, CCA's contract renewal rate has been over 95 percent, Owen said.

In Virginia, the state is starting to resemble a private prison system because prison overbuilding has led to the national marketing of prison space for $78 million a year.

In other states, privatization resulted from court orders to lower inmate populations or to stop parking convicted inmates in county jails. States like Wisconsin contract with private prisons that offer to house inmates for a daily rate of $22.25 instead of the $25 to $30 a day spent by state jails.

Rent-a-cell facilities also are seen as sources of jobs in rural areas like McRae and Telfair Counties in Georgia where newly-built private prisons await out-of-state inmates.

"It fits into our overall economic development needs. We need jobs in that particular area," said Georgia Rep. Roger Byrd, D-Hazlehurst, whose district includes a newly constructed private prison. "It will employ 400 or more people. A private prison also pays taxes on the real estate."

Activists such as Kevin Pranis of the Prison Moratorium Project, an advocacy group that has organized sit-ins against privatization at 50 campuses, say conditions are worse in private prisons, the rate of major accidents is higher, and private prisons fuel more crime.

Anti-privatization activists say there's little hope for rehabilitation without a network of people to visit prisoners in out-of-state private jails.

States like Idaho are seeing a downside to privatization. Mark Carnopis, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Correction, said, "It's not politically or economically the best thing to do to send taxpayers' dollars out to pay a private company. We'd rather keep them in-state."

Idaho has contracted with a New Mexico jail run by Management and Training Corp. to house 125 female offenders only because of a bed shortage in-state, Carnopis said.

"We don't want to use private companies if we don't have to," Carnopis said.

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