American Prisons, A Comparison Of Two Systems

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American Prisons, a Comparison of Two Systems

Proponents of privatization believe that private contractors can operate prisons at less cost than the government, without reducing the levels or quality of service. Others involved in the corrections field, say there is very little or no real evidence that privatizing corrections will ensure a cost savings compared to publicly run facilities. Public prisons account for over 95 percent of the prison beds in the U.S., and considering the recent surge in private prison building, there needs to be a careful review of the advantages and disadvantages of each system.

Documents from the Government Accounting Office (1.996), Federal Bureau of Prisons (1 999) and the State of Florida, Office of Program Policy Analysis (1 997) reviewing studies comparing public and private prisons suggest that more study is needed to reach valid conclusions in comparing the two types of facilities. In order to compare private and public prisons the analysis should be based on similar facilities. The problem cited by all studies is that there is no uniform comparison available. The comparison should be based on similarities of design, capacity, security level and types of inmates. Otherwise, any comparison of costs or quality of service will be invalid. For instance, higher security prisons generally have higher operating costs than lower security prisons because of the higher staff-to-inmate ratios for high security institutions. Facilities operating at 90% of capacity are more expensive than those operating at 130% of capacity. Comparing quality of service can be more difficult than comparing costs. For example, the American Correctional Association (ACA) sets accreditation standards for prisons, yet accredited facilities can vary widely in terms of overall quality. According to these officials, these variances occur because ACA accreditation means that a facility has met minimum standards.

Four of the five studies reviewed by the GAO assessed operational costs of the two types of correctional facilities and there was little or no indication of differences in operational costs. In one study the costs of the existing private prison was substantially lower but the comparison was to a hypothetical public prison and the methodology was questioned. However, a more recent study in Louisiana (1996) did show some cost savings in the operation of a comparable private vs. public prison. The conclusion of these studies is similar: valid comparisons need to be made on prisons of similar size, location, types of inmates and programs offered. That information is not available yet. It might be useful to review some of the purported economic pro and cons of public and private prisons:

A) Pro privatization argues that the normal operation of a free market insures that only service providers who provide a quality product at a competitive market price will survive.

A) CON: The most extreme sentence against an individual that the state can exact, besides the death penalty is depriving him/her of personal freedom. Responsibility for carrying out the terms of imprisonment should rest with the state...This responsibility should not be turned over to private individuals or corporations.

PRO: The government ...
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