“The system is a mess”: The Not-So-Hidden Costs of Prison Privatization

By Ryan Meltzer
Summer Legal Intern

The truth about for-profit prison companies is once again in the limelight. Last weekend, the New York Times published an investigative piece about privately operated halfway houses in New Jersey. The three-part series, published under the main heading “Unlocked,” is the product of a 10-month investigation encompassing state and corporate financial records, reports of oversight and criminal investigations, and interviews with a wide range of actors in the system of private corrections, including corporate officers, lawmakers, former inmates, and guards.

Part 1 examines the connections between Community Education Centers (CEC), the company that runs many of the state’s halfway houses, and New Jersey lawmakers including Gov. Chris Christie. Part 2 focuses on a single troubled CEC facility where “one or two low-wage workers typically oversee each unit of 170 inmates” and robbery, sexual assault, and gang activity are so rampant that “inmates regularly ask to be returned to prison, where they feel safer.” Finally, Part 3 details a gruesome murder at another CEC facility made possible by largely unchecked gang activity, overwhelmed and inadequately trained staff, and a culture of fear and compliance among non-gang-affiliated inmates.

A common theme in all three articles is frustration of expectations: The reports reveal weak security in individual facilities (approximately 5,100 inmates have escaped since 2005) and lax oversight of the entire system, and challenge the oft-repeated assertion that prison privatization saves money for states and municipalities.

Although the focus of the Times series is on the New Jersey system, many of the issues it identifies are endemic to the private prison industry as a whole—an industry with deep roots in Texas. Moreover, CEC operates 17 facilities in Texas, many of which have been in the news for non-compliance with Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) regulations, as well as reports of guard corruption and the provision of subpar basic services to inmates. For instance, in March 2011, CEC’s Liberty County Jail failed its TCJS inspection based on violations including non-functional toilets, sinks, and lights in cells and common areas, and, critically, the failure of then-Warden Tim New to obtain a Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education (TCLEOSE) Jailer’s License—the basic state certification required for jailers. Several of CEC’s facilities have also been plagued by reports of contraband smuggling and bribery involving guards, and in December 2011, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pulled its immigration detainees from CEC’s Jack Harwell Detention Center, citing inadequate medical care, food, and access to legal assistance and worship services.

Private correctional facilities, as the Times article suggests, represent a false promise. Despite the private prison companies’ rhetoric about cost savings for municipalities and successful rehabilitation of offenders, corporations like CEC are nevertheless profit-driven enterprises. They lower costs by paying employees less than public prisons, and by cutting rehabilitative services for inmates. Worse, any revenue that private prisons purportedly save by charging lower per diem rates for prisoners is often outweighed by the myriad collateral costs highlighted by the Times—for instance, the costs of enlisting local law enforcement to track down escapees, investigate crimes, and suppress disturbances (ones organized in protest of subhuman conditions, no less). Most importantly, though, no dollar figure can be assigned to the social cost of contracting with corporations that profit from keeping ever-larger numbers of people behind bars, and maintaining the conditions under which a father incarcerated for traffic violations could be murdered in his bunk.

The Times article is a reminder of why for profit companies should not be tasked with ensuring our public safety.  Sign up for the ACLU of Texas Community Action Network to learn how you can help end prison privatization in Texas.

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