The corrections system in California is collapsing under its own weight, prompting policymakers to seek creative solutions. The most overcrowded public corrections system in the country, California’s prisons were designed to accommodate 84,000 inmates, yet the number of current inmates is roughly double that capacity.
Some assert that the overcrowding is inhumane, resulting in poor quality healthcare and precarious living conditions for inmates. Humanity issues aside, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the state is spending far more than it can afford on its prison system.
A recent study by the Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation reports that California spends three times as much as Texas per inmate – roughly $133 per day compared to $42 per day per inmate in Texas – even though Texas houses about the same number of inmates.
High labor costs in California comprise a large portion of the per-inmate expenditures; in California, one in ten guards working in public prisons makes over $100,000 per year – an alarming figure when compared to average teacher salaries.
Utilizing private prison facilities to house more California inmates could help ease the state’s burden. In recent years, several private corrections facilities in Arizona were built specifically to accommodate California prisoners – at a cost of $72 per day. Not only is the per-day cost less than in California’s own public prisons; it also goes further, covering capital costs, staff, healthcare, even legal expenses.
“California could save close to $2 billion over the next five years by moving 25,000 more inmates to out-of-state private correctional facilities,” according to Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform at Reason Foundation.
Prison privatization is not a new idea. In the early 1980’s, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) made its mark on the private corrections industry. The company currently operates nearly 70 facilities (and owns 40) in more than 20 states.
While a dozen states are really active, the federal government is actually the biggest consumer of privatized correctional services, says Gilroy.
Private prison facilities can offer a variety of benefits, including design efficiencies that can help reduce the level of staffing necessary to maintain order. In contrast to the public sector, where the average state may build a new prison once every decade or so, the private sector builds prisons every year, so design innovations filter down quickly.
Gilroy notes that prison privatization is unlikely to occur on a system-wide basis – in California or any other state. Rather, the policy recommendation calls for an increased use of public-private partnerships in the correctional system, which could produce annual cost savings of between 5 and 15 percent in California.
Prison privatization has been met with skepticism for a variety of reasons. According to a Corrections Corporation of America article entitled, “Myth vs. Reality in Private Corrections: The Truth behind the Criticism,” CCA says that since its founding in 1983, the company and the private corrections industry it founded has experienced its share of criticism and scrutiny.
“The fact is that the corrections industry, including publicly and privately managed institutions, has been and will always be a controversial and highly regulated one.”
The release addresses many commonly held misconceptions about private prisons, starting with the myth that private companies experience higher rates of assaults and escapes. To that, CCA says that “historical, statistical data for related incidents actually reveal that public and private sector performances are comparable. Specific to escapes, CCA’s escape rate for the past three years is lower than the rate for the most recent three years of data for the public sector.”
As Leonard Gilroy succinctly sums it up, “Certainly, bad things can happen in good prisons -public or private. But, as in any public-private partnership, success depends upon how the program is implemented, what controls are put into place, and how closely the system is monitored.”