Swift Justice for Private Prisons

The video footage is disturbing in the extreme, an apparent tableau of the worst sort of bullying prison-guard violence: guards kicking seemingly compliant prisoners in the head and groin, swearing at them, beating them with riot sticks and electric prods, forcing them to crawl on their bellies, some with their pants down around their ankles; a German Shepherd biting the legs of at least one inmate.

The tape--reportedly filmed by prison officials for use as a training video, of all things--records a September 1996 disturbance at a privately operated wing of a Brazoria County, Texas, jail that houses out-of-state inmates. The incident only came to light in late summer as part of a lawsuit filed by Missouri inmates and has set off a firestorm regarding the privatization of prison facilities.

For a number of years, Texas has "rented" excess prison space to other states seeking to alleviate overcrowding, generating about $40 per bed per day. Currently, Texas incarcerates about 5,500 prisoners from 11 other states; many of the operations are sub-contracted out to private companies.

Critics have been quick to fix the blame on privatization per se. In a house editorial, for instance, The Buffalo News concluded the video "casts doubt on private jails," and "raises questions about the contracting out of public-safety services and the degree of accountability--or lack of accountability--in such arrangements." Noting that several of the private prison guards involved in the video had documented histories of abusing inmates, the St. Louis-Dispatch suggests that "Missouri should never turn over its prisoners to the care of...private firms run by people who wouldn't know brutality if it stomped them in the back."

Such concerns, while understandable in light of the raw footage, are misplaced for two reasons: They fail to account fully for the circumstances in Brazoria County and to recognize that it is precisely privatization that allows for more-accountable public services.

Although Capital Correction Resources Inc., a Mississippi-based contractor, operated the wing in which the video was shot, the larger setting was a public jail. Nor were private guards the only ones implicated in the incident: Sheriff's department personnel, decked out in full riot gear, participated in the action; similarly, the sheriff's department is charged with covering up the incident. And, while at least one CCRI guard involved in the incident had been fired from the Texas Department of Corrections for beating a prisoner, the Brazoria County Sheriff's Department actually had "final approval" on all hires. Clearly, whatever happened in the Brazoria County jail implicates public as well as private prison operators.

Perhaps more important is what has happened since the revelations--actions that speak directly to issues of accountability and reform. After viewing a copy of the videotape, Missouri corrections officials immediately canceled the state's $1.8 million contract with Brazoria County and two other sites in Texas, and began bringing its inmates home. Earlier this year, Oklahoma officials started removing their prisoners from a Limestone County, Texas, facility--also operated by CCRI--reportedly due to excessive use of pepper spray by guards. (Interestingly, Oklahoma is waiting for space to open up in a private facility in Oklahoma before it can remove all its prisoners.)

As the St. Louis-Dispatch noted sarcastically, "Now that Missouri and Oklahoma have pulled their prisoners out of CCRI-run jails in Texas, the company is about to go broke. Maybe this is the way the marketplace purges itself of private prison companies that condone and foster abuse." Indeed, it is--and it represents a course of action not likely to be pursued against a public prison.

As University of Connecticut sociologist Charles Logan noted in Private Prisons: Cons and Pros (1990), "Economic controls [on private prisons] do not displace political controls, but they can operate more quickly and allow finer adjustments" through contract renegotiations or outright termination. For private prisons, wrote Logan, "market mechanisms of supervision, discipline, and accountability add to those of the political and legal systems. Economic accountability supplements, more than it conflicts with, political and legal accountability."

Of course, privatization doesn't guarantee perfect prisons, or perfect government. But Logan's argument that it increases accountability drives home why privatization can help deliver better government. Capital Correctional Resources Inc. may well go out of business after such a high-profile scandal. The same can rarely be said about public agencies that find themselves in similar circumstances.

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