Before Padlocking Private Prisons, Get Some Credible Evidence
Daniel P. Mears Guest columnist
More research is needed before deciding private-public prison issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice has taken the unprecedented step of seeking to terminate all federal private-prison contracts. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates says private prisons "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and, as noted in a recent report by the department's Office of the Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."
Is the decision a smart one, and should states follow suit?
Yes, if the Justice Department's claim is true. The department's decision could be supported on additional grounds. For example, critics argue that it is unethical for companies to profit from punishment. Private prisons thus seem to be a bad idea in either instance.
What, though, if private prisons in fact are more effective than public prisons and save money? That would cast doubt on the wisdom of terminating the contracts. And it would raise questions about whether it is ethical to spend more for less.
A clear answer to the question would be helpful. Unfortunately, none exists — not from the inspector general's report on the Federal Bureau of Prisons and not from other research on privatization. Compared to publicly run facilities, private prisons may be less effective, create more harms, and generate more costs, as the Department of Justice asserts. But they just as easily could be more effective, create fewer harms, and cost less.
Some questions in life are easy to answer. Whether private prisons are better than public prisons is not one them. The central problem lies with creating credible estimates of privatization benefits. That requires an apples-to-apples comparison, and generating one turns out to be quite difficult.
To estimate private-prison effects, we need to know that the individuals at private facilities resemble those in their publicly run counterparts. Demographic characteristics, risks of offending, sentence lengths, reasons for imprisonment, and other such dimensions must be matched. We also need valid information on the operational costs of each type of housing.
Just as important, we need accurate information —for both private and public prisons — on the amount and quality of services, how inmates behave during confinement, and how they fare upon return to society. If two types of facilities differ along such dimensions, we no longer have an apples-to-apples comparison. We then cannot determine if we have purchased what was promised. We also cannot determine which is more effective or cost-efficient.
No studies to date provide all of this information for private prisons or for public prisons. That is the more sobering problem that policymakers may wish to consider. How well-run or effective are private prisons, and how well-run or effective are public prisons? How much abuse occurs in them? What factors contribute to their relative effectiveness or the harms they cause? Indeed, just what does occur inside of any and all prisons throughout America?
Shedding light on these questions would create the foundation for achieving the accountability that policymakers have long advocated. It also would provide prison systems with a credible, research-based foundation for identifying when privatization may be effective.
Should private prisons be terminated? I personally think that profiting from justice does not seem right. Private prisons can be problematic from another perspective — they typically operate with no requirement that they achieve comparable or lower rates of recidivism than what we would get from public prisons.
Even so, I could be compelled by credible research. For example, privatization can be justified on the grounds that it enables states or the federal government to expand or contract prison capacity as needed. Doing so helps to avoid becoming trapped into the long-term costs associated with building new prisons that one no later needs.
Evidence suggests that states and the federal government have not used private prisons that way. Perhaps they did initially. But then claims surfaced that privatization was more effective. Private prisons could do more for less.
A subtle shift then occurred — the ability to contract and expand disappeared. Privatization was assumed, not shown empirically, to be the better approach. This shift helped contribute to mass incarceration. And it contributed to missed opportunities to contract prison capacity when appropriate and to invest more in crime prevention.
The better way to proceed for the federal government and states? Don't focus on public versus private prisons. Instead, focus on investing in research that can better guide policy debates. Evaluating the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of prisons of all types, whether public or private, would be a great start.
Daniel P. Mears is the Mark C. Stafford Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the author, with Joshua C. Cochran, of Prisoner Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration.