Legislative Watch, House Edition 3: Privatizing prisons?

Rep. Ernie Leidiger (34A) is a co-author on a new bill introduced in the Minnesota State House yesterday.  The bill, H.F. 939, would mandate that the Department of Corrections take a request for proposal and authorize one or more private vendors for correctional facilities, services, and supervision of criminals by November 1, 2011.

That’s right:  legislative Republicans want to mandate the privatization of our prisons.  (The state has previously used private facilities when there has been a bed shortage, but no such shortage currently exists.)  The rationale for such a step is that cost savings can be achieved.  In order to authorize a vendor, the vendor has to agree to charge a rate 5% less than the per-inmate daily cost of the DOC.

If one wants to achieve a 5% cost savings in the DOC, however, there’s an easy way to do it:  they can just cut the department’s budget by that amount.  Studies from other states show in fact, that while creative accounting can make it look as if private prisons are cheaper, the total cost to the state (since the state still ends up providing many of the additional services like health care to the prisoners) can in fact prove to be higher. 

There are reasonable concerns about whether or not the private companies sometimes cut corners with security in order to achieve higher profits. A well-publicized escape from an Arizona prison in 2007 (where the escaped inmates ended up murdering two civilians while on the run), forced the management company to admit they had a “very young staff that have not integrated into very strong security practices” at the facility.

And once you’ve outsourced a good chunk of this work, it becomes increasingly difficult to bring it back in-house because there’s very little appetite to spend the millions of dollars to build the state-run corrections system back up to the previous level.

This is a risky bet from a financial and safety perspective.  So what is this really all about? 

There’s two answers that make the most sense:  labor unions and campaign money.  Minnesota’s correctional facilities are staffed by a heavily unionized workforce.  As we’ve seen in other states, Republicans are moving quickly and with substantial force against public employee labor unions.  By shipping work to private companies, Republicans will weaken the political potency of those unions.

The second factor is campaign money.  The private prison industry has proven to be reliably deep-pocketed when it comes to supporting politicians who advance their interests.  It’s really no surprise to find out that in Arizona, where over 20% of the inmates are incarcerated in private facilities, the private prison industry is one of the largest special interest groups.  They have donated large sums to Gov. Jan Brewer, as well as to state legislative candidates who support their interests. 

Let’s not let Republicans play political games with our public safety.  We have an excellent Department of Corrections that does their job with high levels of safety and efficiency.  Like any other state agency, they should be expected to wring further cost savings out of their budgets.  But moving to privatize our prison system is risky and unnecessary.

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  1. National Prison Industry Divestment Campaign | unprison - May 13, 2011

    […] Legislative Watch, House Edition 3: Privatizing prisons? (brickcity.wordpress.com) […]

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