If you've ever seen a prison movie or watched the local news, you know that inmates in jail often attack each other. Ever heard of Corcoran State Prison? There guards set up gladiator "to-the-death" fights between inmates. They would also force troublemaker inmates to share cells with inmates known for beatings and sexual assaults. Eight years later these crimes remain unpunished thanks to protective labor laws that shield even the most egregious violations, as well as a general lack of accountability in public institutions. In fact in the case of Corcoran, only the whistleblower lost his job.
Recently, two Seal Beach City Jail guards were indicted for allegedly orchestrating the beating of inmate Arrow Stowers. One guard is charged with setting up the beating and the other allegedly helped cover it up. Unlike Corcoran, a private company operates the Seal Beach jail where guards and the company are subject to higher levels of accountability than government run jails. Since the incident took place, the guards have been fired from their jobs and face stiff fines and lengthy prison sentences if convicted of violating Stowers' federal civil rights. The incident has also prompted the city to review its ties to Correctional Systems Inc. (CSI), which has operated the facility for the city since 1994. "Obviously we're going to have to revisit the contract to see if we want to maintain a long-term relationship" said Seal Beach City Manager John Bahorski.
CSI, which operates nine jails, most of which are in Southern California, undoubtedly agrees that things went horribly wrong at the Seal Beach jail. However, this incident is a reflection of the individual people, not private corrections itself. Government-run facilities have plenty of problems too. The bottom line is a matter of accountability—which type of facility is held more responsible for its actions and mistreatments?
The answer is simple — private facilities are much more accountable.
The Supreme Court, in Richardson v. McKnight, ruled that the limited immunity privileges afforded government jail guards do not extend to guards at private facilities, like the one in Seal Beach. Guards in private facilities are ultimately responsible for their actions or wrongdoings, and that isn't always the case in public facilities. Furthermore, due process is not implicit in the law of the land; but it is often explicit in private jail contracts.
Private jails offer public officials powerful tools to ensure good conduct. Most governments have public employees monitoring the performance of private jails, so someone is watching the watchmen. At public jails, by contrast, the government agency monitors itself. By putting the government in the role of independent monitor with the power to fire poor performing companies, the government has a more powerful hand than if it was them who was failing.
Secondly, the contract is a powerful weapon against abuse. A well-written, performance-based contract will reward the private firm for providing the kind of care public officials require, and penalize them for straying away from contract specifications. Tying compensation to measurable outcomes in public safety and prisoner treatment puts the private operating firm in the business of serving the public interest. No such assurance is provided when the governments runs jails.
The events that allegedly occurred at Corcoran or Seal Beach didn't happen because of the kind of uniforms —public or private—that the guards wear. But there are miles of differences about what happens AFTER the incident. Unlike Corcoran, Seal Beach is a private facility and subject to strict performance standards� if wrongdoing is proved, justice will ultimately be served.
Geoffrey Segal is director of privatization and government reform at Reason Foundation