California

The Case for Privatizing California's Prisons

They'll cut state costs and save taxpayer dollars.

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We all know California is swimming in red ink and facing chronic budget troubles. The state deficit is at least $20 billion—again. Debt levels and overwhelming public pension obligations are unsustainable and, unfortunately, leaders in Sacramento cannot agree on how to tackle these problems. There does seem to be agreement that there isn't a single silver bullet solution to this state of continuous crisis. A great many things are going to have to change for California to solve these problems. And, because of its size and the level of mismanagement, a good place to start is with the corrections system.

The Legislative Analyst's Office found that correctional officers account for one in seven state employees and eat up a disproportionately large 40 percent of state personnel spending. The overcrowded state prisons house 167,000 inmates in a system designed for 84,000. As a result, federal judges have ordered California to release 40,000 inmates. And a federal receiver has taken over control of California's prison health care services due to a class action lawsuit and the poor quality of medical care in the system.

California is spending more than $8 billion on corrections this year, more than 10 percent of the massive state budget. State taxpayers spend about $133 per inmate—every day. Texas, which has the second largest inmate population after California, spends less than one-third of that amount—about $42.50 per inmate per day. One reason Texas spends so much less than California on prisons is its extensive use of public-private partnerships. Since 1989, Texas' annual data shows its cost savings from private prisons have averaged 15 percent a year. During that time, there was not a single year in which government-run prisons matched or were below the private prison costs.

A new Reason Foundation-Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation study finds that modest expansion of California's current use of public-private partnerships in corrections would save taxpayers nearly $2 billion over the next five years. Additionally, more aggressive use of private prisons and contracting out some operations of existing prison facilities would save another $400million to $1.2 billion each year.

The first pivotal step for California is to build upon its successful experience transferring inmates to lower-cost privately operated facilities in other states. Expanding this strategy by sending an additional 25,000 low- to medium-security inmates to such facilities—5,000 per year for five years—would save $120 million the first year and up to $1.8 billion in savings by the end of the fifth year.

Not only are costs lower in private prisons, but the competition they provide helps drive down costs in state-run prisons as well. A study of New Mexico—which contracts out 45 percent of its correctional system—found the state spent $10,000 less per prisoner per year than peer states that had no privately operated correctional facilities. A March 2009 Avondale Partners survey of 30 state correctional agencies, many of which use privately operated correctional facilities, found that contracted prisons cost 28 percent less than state-run facilities.

Public-private partnerships won't solve all of the problems facing California's prison system. Many other facets—from who gets incarcerated to how to reduce recidivism—have to be addressed. But expanded use of out-of-state private prisons would be a good start and provide the impetus for some of the broader changes needed. The savings from public-private prisons can take a real bite out of the state's budget problems. As the saying amongst Sacramento lawmakers goes, $1billion here, $1 billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Leonard Gilroy is director of Government Reform at the Reason Foundation. This column first appeared in the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Daily News.

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  1. Horray for Corporatism!

    1. +10

  2. Hey, let’s assign a profit motive for putting people in prison! And then when judges are found to be bribed to send people to these moneymaking prisons (like in Alabama) we can all talk about how corrupt government is!

    What a great idea. Long live liberty!

    1. And don’t forget that these corporations are then going to lobby for every law that guarantees them more ‘customers’.
      Sounds like a stupid idea to me.

      1. One of the most powerful unions in CA today is the one that represents the prison guards. What makes you think they aren’t doing the same thing, albeit at a much higher price?

        1. Why would a prison guard union advocate for more prisoners?

          This is of course a horrible idea, and there are plenty of awful private prisons and awful prison-population-inflating laws that prove it.

          1. For the same reason a teacher’s union lobbies for smaller class sizes, Tony.

              1. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

              2. Think, fuckhead.

                If student body remains the same size, what is the effect of reducing class size on the teacher population? Then, if that tiny scrap of brain lodged in your cranium permits it, extrapolate that to union dues.

                Get it?

                1. I don’t know that teachers unions are for small class sizes because they want more teachers hired. It might have to do with having a decent workplace too.

                  At any rate the incentives for for-profit prisons are crystal clear and not good for a fair criminal justice system.

                  1. The incentives for privately-run prisons are less aligned than those that are state-run. With state-run prisons, the guards, their union and the legialators are more likely aligned because of the symbiotic relationship of money, votes and support. With a private prison, there’s more liklihood of an adversarial relationship between labor and management. The CEO might support more laws to fill his prison and donate accordingly, but that’s identical to a union head doing the same thing. The CEO won’t necessarily have his employees on his side.

                  2. It is also much easier to close down private prisons, discipline employees who screw up and hold accountable for failures when they happen. Those things are incredibly difficult in public prisons.

                    1. Is it? Frequently one of the consequences of privatization is less public oversight and less accountability. What makes you say this in the case of prisons?

                    2. That’s a great point, AJs.

                  3. Dear Tony,

                    You said “I don’t know that teachers unions are for small class sizes because they want more teachers hired. ”

                    Correct. You don’t know. You also can’t know. The power of knowing is called the intellect. Those who exercise this power are known as intellectuals. You are an anti-intellectual, one who doesn’t know and who can’t know. You either don’t have this power (nothing wrong with that, we all have strengths and weaknesses) or you can’t begin to use it (again, no problem (well, just your problem). Or perhaps you lack the moral fiber to see the world as it is (that is your fault and everyone’s problem).

                    No matter what the cause is, what’s the point? Do you really derive enough pleasure from positing superficial anti-intellectual foolish positions in response to intelligent intellectuals displaying reason that shames your rubbish to make it worth spending so much of your time in this pursuit? Or do you have some other purpose commenting in this forum?

            1. For the good of “the kids”? That makes no sense..

          2. Tony, you’re really dumb if you don’t think the union lobbies to keep prisons open. It’s how the union stays in business. Go slap your self in the face and “duh.”

            And this is an awesome idea. The author provides examples of two other states success. Yet it seems no one takes time to actually think about it. Just automatic shutdown of an idea that does not conform to a narrow world view.

            1. The unions play an enormous role in expanding prison populations. The motives are no different teacher unions fighting to keep the numbers up in public schools.

              Unions originally were formed to screw coloreds, that didn’t work out too well, so now they just screw all Americans.

    2. Do you ever get disgusted, what with all us filthy freedom-mongers lurking around, discussing propaganda like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, acting like they’re the cornerstones of our Republic? You must laugh at our obtuseness and naivit?e when someone uses Lenin’s name sarcastically, ignoring all the good he did for the world. I think we all welcome your opinion here, I’m just confused why you would spend your time sparring with the lowly “libertarian fringe.”

    3. I don’t know about the Alabama case, but about a year ago a judge in Pennsylvania was found to have received about $2 million in kickbacks for sending kids to prison.

      Now if we can reduce the price, also, that means we can send even more people to prison. The USA won’t just be in first place, but so far ahead that the competition won’t even be able to see us!

  3. No! No! A thousnad times no!

    Running jails and prisons is one of the few functions of government that are inarguably legitimate.

    I don’t want corporations policing our streets or fighting our wars either.

    1. Privatized prisons have nasty incentive structures. It would be better to just stop allowing unionization at the public prisons.

      1. And all public employment.

      2. This I could get behind too.

      3. Privatized prisons have nasty incentive structures. It would be better to just stop allowing unionization at the public prisons.

        Just order the National Guard to take over prisons.

    2. If you think that this is a good idea, then you need to read this. Big story in my neck of the woods a few years ago, truly disgusting.

  4. Is that picture with this article from the main page, of Social Distortions Mike Ness in Prison Bound? Sweet.

    1. Yes.

      Nice to see that Mike could still get pomade in jail. I can’t tell if they let him have mascara.

  5. This is the new “Libertarian” message? How to do mass incarceration on the cheap?

    Gee, I wonder how Libertarians got tagged as being nothing more than Republicans who are gay.

    1. Don’t forget, pot smokers, atheists and dog fuckers.

    2. Don’t forget, pot smokers, atheists and dog fuckers.

      1. Once was sufficient.

        1. He really likes pot smokers, atheists and dog fuckers.

          1. I only hit the button once. I swear it!

    3. It’s apparently the new Reason Foundation Sponsor message, since it doesn’t play well to the audience. About the kindest thing you hear in the comments is “well, uh, unionized guards can be motivated to support mass imprisonment too.” Of course, since there’s no guarantee that a private prison wouldn’t have unionized guards in addition to greedy and unethical management…

  6. After all it worked so well for electricity.

    1. Good point, my electric rates are among the lowest in the country. Tony is right they should privatize the prisons.

      1. “They’re fucking taking all the money back from you guys? All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?”

        “Yeah, grandma Millie, man”

        “Yeah, now she wants her fucking money back for all the power you’ve charged right up, jammed right up her asshole for fucking $250 a megawatt hour.”

        1. Are you accusing me of fucking your grandmother?

          If I did I assure you the act was consensual, and she enjoyed it.

  7. Don’t privatize prisons. Close them and force the Gov to decide who really deserves to be incarcerated.
    The jail in my town has 17 beds. It is full, so non-violent offenders just get a summons and are let go. If they had more beds, they would still fill them.

  8. I have to agree that the privatization idea is a very bad idea.

    May I modestly suggest that they stop sending so many people to jail for drug offenses?

    1. May I suggest they quit sending anybody to jail for drug offenses. Prison is just part of the expense created with that fiasco but it does account for the vast majority of inmates in the system.

    2. I agree, the article should have just said “Dont arrest people for consensual crimes.” But that ain’t gonna happen–too many people’s livelihoods depend on the drug war.

      1. You are correct, unfortunately.

        1. Yep.

          “Qui bono” is a fairly good guide to who will support or oppose something.

          1. Indeed, we look out for our own interests first and most of all.

  9. Perhaps the private prisons could pay California for the prisoners, and then make them work.

    1. For the sake of our economy in the rescession, we have got to get the prison population up:

      3 Prison Stocks Set for Release – CRN, CXW, GEO

    2. For the sake of our economy in the rescession, we have got to get the prison population up:

      3 Prison Stocks Set for Release – CRN, CXW, GEO

    3. You mean like they do at Angola Prison.

      1. If I had to spend time in prison, my preference woild be working the farm at Angola.

        1. It depends on whether you’d ever like to see freedom in this life again, those sent to Angola often die there, those who don’t are usually there many years.

          Most prisoners want to work, time won’t go by faster sitting in a cell waiting, and a few pennies a day is better than nothing, or next to it.

          My point wasn’t Angola inmates work, it was that they go in and are there a very long time. Could the profit and the length of stay be related, I don’t know. Just considering possibilities from the perspective of skeptic.

    4. Slavery is still legal as punishment for a crime in the U.S., you know.

  10. What a great idea! Lock up a bunch of people, most of whom shouldnt be locked up in the first place, then extort slave labor from them! What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Nothing, we are moving from a service to a prison based economy.

      1. Susan, I like your “drugs have been illegal a long time, it’s the way we do things…” schtick a little better, but this is good too.

        Are you heterosexual? Do you have a boyfriend?

    2. It would make a good movie, plenty of real life horror stories from down south to use as a template. The prison pays the judge, the judge cuts in the sheriff, the sheriff collects the crew.

      1. Or they could use the Pennsylvania example of the judges taking kick backs for every minor they sent up the river.

  11. What’s wrong with chain gangs? Why can’t prisoners earn their keep? No work no food.

    What about real gladiator games with prisoners right after American Idol and just before Dancing With The Stars? Survivor is so yesterday. Winners get paid and “time of for good showmanship.”

    Make rape, kidnapping, murder capital and enforce it within 3 months of conviction? So what if we have to gas a few pedophile priests.

    All kinds of solutions other than paying some government contractor to do the dirty work at a fat price.

    1. Ave Obama Imperator! Morituri te salutant!

    2. Why not extend the games to the senate?

      et tu Brute?

      1. HMMM.

        McCain (Thracian) vs. Byrd (Retiarius)

        Nah. There is some intellectual appeal, but the plebs want eye candy.

    3. that would make a good movie I would call it Gamer.

  12. If the alternatives are

    (1) Privatizely-run prisons, and

    (2) Unionized state employee-run prisons

    I’ll take door number 1.

    1. Finally a voice of reason!

      Gov Gary Johnson privatized the New Mexico prisons and saved a mega-boss* amount of money.

      Look folks, the argument here isn’t “should our prisons be packed with people who shouldn’t be there” it’s whether we want lazy, inefficient, costly government employees watching them or contractors.

      I’m with RC, I’ll take the second.

      … Hobbit

  13. Privatize prisons –> BAD! Look what happened in PA, to kids!

    Pa. judges accused of jailing kids for cash

    Listen to all the details here
    Click “listen to mp3” (about 45 min.)

    Anybody who supports jail privatization needs to go fuck themselves with a Bowie knife.

    1. A David Bowie knife?

    2. Corruption in public prisons by union state employees never happens.

      1. If you think you’ve got me pegged as some union lover, your fucking wrong. I’ve been on the inside, twice. There is no comparison between a few COs and white shirts smuggling in bundles of dope, and judges taking kickbacks for locking up kids and intentionally denying them their Constitutional rights for minor violations. $2.6 million by two judges over 5 years. And these are only the ones they caught. Where do you think that money came from? The shareholders? I’d rather see judges on the take for letting guilty people go, than innocent people locked up.

        1. Damn, I should of scrolled down, as I just posted a link to a Times story about this very thing. The page I linked to told the story of a girl, with no priors, getting three months! for making fun of her principal on myspace.

          I hope these judges have the pleasure of meeting the relatives of the youths they railroaded in prison.

  14. The system of corruption that results in judicial and ultimately inmate abuse works the same with either 1 or 2, my big concern is why are we incarcerating so many people in the first place. This shouldn’t even be an issue, we have far too many laws that serve no purpose but to allow this or that group to feel good that someone different from themselves is getting destroyed. Murder, rape, robbery & theft, make up a small portion that would be much smaller by merely ending prohibitions of consensual acts considered crimes they never had a right to make them illegal to begin with.

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  16. California = $133.00 a day per prisoner
    Texas = $47.00 a day per prisoner (going from memory but close)
    Both with similar prisoner numbers.
    Wanna guess which one is mainly privatized?

    Beige (Gray) Davis former governor sold his soul to the prison union thugs. This was a big factor in the special election that brought about the next big failure Arnie the Governator. Damn, can’t even watch any old Arnie movies, kinda throw up a little in my mouth. F you Arnie.

    1. Correction, actually less that $43.00 for Texas.

      http://reason.org/news/show/pr…..fornia-bil

  17. Considering we have the highest per capita prison population in the world and something like 70% of those incarcerated are for non-violent crimes – perhaps we can start by not putting so many in prison in the first place, then re-evaluate?

    Doesn’t it seem strange that we have a higher per-capita incarceration rate than Russia and the rate is something like 5 times that of the UK and 7 times that of Canada… maybe the problem is that we incarcerate too many people? 5% of the worlds population and 25% of the prison population is not something to be proud of…

  18. California is a failed state. It is chalk full of Volvo-driving tyrants, nanny-state yentas, and transvestites.

    Long live the State of Jefferson.

  19. The only reasonable thing to do is to get the hell out of California.

  20. So how does a privately run prison differ from privatizing public school food and/or custodial service? You contract with both to offer a service.
    In the case of Wackenhut and corporations of that ilk you can also contract them to build the facility for you in exchange for a specified lease agreement.

  21. God, the idea of privitizing prisons is immoral. ALl you have to do is look at the history and market for drug testing.

    Please don’t take this as an endorsement of state prisons.

    1. You had to make the comparison, didn’t you? NJ now has drug testing in the state prisons. 60 days dead time (ad seg) for a hot urine, plus, forfeiture of security status.

  22. There is no case for privatizing prisons. This chucklehead has got to be kidding….

  23. If we start closing the prisons, letting out the inmates, and firing the guards, there goes the economic recovery. The unemployment rate will skyrocket. We need more prisons to lower the unemployment rate. And to fuck with all those people that we don’t like.

  24. I think a private prison system could work, but before we can do that we have to have laws that put the right people in jail. The problem is how terribly our criminal justice system works. I’d be all in favor of cheap prisons if the only people in prison were people violating other people’s rights, but that is far from the case.

    I would only find privatizing prisons attractive once I was really convinced that everyone there belonged there.

  25. I’m beginning to pick up a trend in this site…

  26. This article sucks. Fucking LINOs.

  27. The main problem is that there are thousands of non-violent criminals who shouldn’t be in jail.
    Further privatizing prisons will just creates an even larger pressure to keep these failed judicial policies in place to ensure their profits.

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  29. I agree with you, your saying is so good and usful for me.Thanks.
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  31. Hmmm.
    Law enforcement and criminal punishment are indeed two of the few legitimate purposes of government, as one poster above points out.

    Outsourcing these functions would seem to allow the government to shirk a moral duty that belongs to the people as citizens, not to corporate structures with a profit motive. (The people should not be encouraged to divorce themselves from the rights and duties of active citizenship.)

    And many posters have noted that we do indeed have far too many people in prison, most for minor offenses against property or for possession of contraband.

    Shrink the prison population and the funding issue also shrinks, and the government then need not shirk its moral duty to dispense justice impartially and fairly.

    The funding issue, constrained to its proper role as part of government expense and action, allows the link between imprisoning so many citizens and the inherent social and economic cost to be seen clearly. Breaking that link by getting our prison-work done “on the cheap” permits citizens to ignore or disregard the actual costs associated with their chosen social policy.

    I say let the people see how much it truly costs to lock up so many people, and then ask them again if they truly support such an onerous system.

    I suspect the times they are a changin’, so to speak, and we will see increasing calls to Let My People Go.

    1. This argument seems specious. It would seem inherent that a libertarian government would assume and execute it’s enumerated powers (duties) in the most efficient manner possible. Does the goverment actually manufacture and maintain the tanks and planes necessary to protect the borders, or rather, contract with Boeing, GM, etc? Would it be “shirking it’s duties” to allow UPS to more effeciently deliver the mail? Why then would private building and staffing a prison be “shirking a duty”, so long as the duty performed met the letter of the law more efficiently and stretched the tax dollar?

  32. Wow, this article SUCKS. Keep those reason.org’ers away from reason.com!

  33. Sometimes I really hate Reason. Terrible article. Public-private partnerships do not equal free markets.

  34. The whole idea of free markets is voluntary trade.

    Giving out corporate welfare to lock up people in cages?

    This is the most anti-market piece of garbage article on here in a while.

    Fuck this.

    1. Amen! Fuck that idea is right!

  35. While I’m all for cutting wasteful gov’t spending as well as looking for ways to save taxpayer funds, Corrections are a function of the gov’t. (exclusively). Strange times we live in, the (Federal) government wants to control healthcare (not a function of government), while (State & Local) govt’s want to privatize prisons which is a function of governments. Maybe it’s time for our elected officials to complete a history/ civics course before being eligible before running for office.

  36. You guys would sell your soul if you could save a few bucks!

  37. This article went over like a lead balloon, eh?

  38. This article doesn’t seem to be so well received by the community.

  39. I say let your government be government and your private be private and don’t create unholy alliances between the too. It’s known as corporatism and it’s a bad bad idea. Did I say this private prisons was a bad idea? Because it is!

  40. Thanks for sharing.great article! ,Abercrombie clothing is very popular now.You can see it everywhere in the street.Do you want to be a fashionable person, womens Abercrombie fitch is your best choice.You will become a envy of your friends.Come on.

  41. Both privitized prisons and public prisons have drawbacks. I’m for privitization in most ways, but not for prisons. Prison’s need to be state-run on libertarian philosophical grounds. Here’s why:

    Ideally no one should be denied the negative liberties by any entity or individual. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_liberties)

    Of course, in order for justice to be enforced, a person who denies negative liberties from others must have their own negative liberties denied to themselves. It is not ideal, but it is the only practical solution for legal enforcement.

    In order to minimize the number of entities who have a legitimate claim in denying one’s negative liberties, a society agrees in a Lockean social contract that the State be the only entity which can legitimately deny negative liberties from its citizens (with due process etc, of course).

    Therefore a private entity is violating the Lockean contract and denying individuals’ negative liberties illegitimately when it detains them, even if the person was sentenced by the State legitimately.

    This still leaves the uneasy situation, where the state can legitimately deny negative liberties from people. In the Lockean contract we settle for this because of the checks and balances granted to us from habeus corpus, the second amendment and elections.

    Privatized prisons deny negative liberties illegitimately. It is not the role of private entities to detain other private entities. Every libertarian should recognize this.

    Finally, the financial argument is irrelevant. There are some functions of government which can legitimately run at cost to taxpayers, prisons being one of the few (also military and police).

    Of course, suggestions of not locking up non-violent offenders or drug users are extremely sensible. Let’s hope more people realize that.

  42. of out-of-state private prisons would be a good start and provide the impetus for some of th

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