Debunking Arizona Prison Privatization Myths

Following up on my recent post regarding a potentially groundbreaking prison privatization proposal in Arizona, J.J. Hensley at the Arizona Republic writes that state Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan is asking Gov. Jan Brewer to reject the legislature’s privatization proposals:

The prospect of Arizona selling off its state prisons for a cash influx might bode well for the budget, but it comes with “grave concerns” from the director of the Department of Corrections, according to a letter Charles Ryan sent to Gov. Jan Brewer earlier this month.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, was part of the budget plan approved last week. Lawmakers have yet to send the bills to Brewer. Senate Bill 1028 would allow private vendors to operate one or more of the Arizona State Prison complexes, with a 50-year contract to run the prisons and an upfront payment of $100 million.

Ryan asks Brewer to veto the legislation – if and when it gets to her desk. Brewer’s budget plan also includes sale-leaseback deals on prisons.

In the letter, Ryan cites concerns with the plan, including the ability of for-profit prison companies to properly control some of the volatile inmates in the state’s maximum-security units. He also raises concerns about the proposal’s impact on plans to expand prisons, contracts the prisons have with vendors and on prison employees.

“Undoubtedly, a private company would pay its employees significantly lower wages and provide them lesser training to realize cost savings. This would lead to higher staff turnover, low morale and place public safety at risk,” the letter states.

In a presentation Ryan gave to the Brewer last week, he also expressed some logistical concerns about the ability to privatize bits and pieces of the state’s large prison complexes, which are designed to handle a variety of inmates with a centralized control-and-operations center.

“Privatizing maximum-security beds would be unprecedented in the United States,” according to Ryan’s presentation. “Who would be responsible for execution of inmates?”

Unfortunately, Ryan’s assertions are more scare tactics than substance. First, the notion that “privatizing maximum-security beds would be unprecedented” in the U.S. is simply false. In fact, I spent some time today digging up a few examples of privately operated maximum security facilities in the U.S. (and there are several more around the world):

  • Leavenworth Detention Center (Kansas): 1,033-bed maximum security facility operated on behalf of the U.S. Marshals.
  • South Bay Correctional Facility and Graceville Correctional Facility (Florida): both are approx. 1,800 bed facilities that mostly house “close custody” inmates. [In Florida, the “close custody” security level is comparable to other states’ maximum security level. Florida also has a “maximum security” level, but it’s reserved exclusively for death row inmates.]
  • Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Walnut Grove, Mississippi): 941-bed maximum security institution for male youth offenders (b/n 13-20 years old).
  • Davis Correctional Facility (Oklahoma): Originally a medium security prison, this facility now has a maximum security housing unit for Oklahoma state inmates.
  • New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility (New Mexico): this prison houses all state female inmates, including those under maximum security.
  • Marion County Jail (Indianapolis, Indiana): similar to NM above, this local jail has a mixed population with some maximum security offenders; hence, the units are run like maximum security.

As far as who would be responsible for executing death row inmates, with or without privatization, the answer is the same—the state. Policymakers would not relinquish such authority.

Next, as we pointed out in our 2002 prison privatization FAQ, the notion that private operators will provide their employees lesser training is simply a myth:

Do private correctional officers receive lower-quality training than government correctional officers?

This is usually not the case. Many states require by law or in contracts that all staff be trained to the same level as government staff. Moreover, most contracts now stipulate adherence to ACA standards, which include training standards more stringent than those of many correctional departments. Many private firms set very high training standards. The largest firm in the industry requires 160 hours of training for its correctional officers, while the ACA standard requires only 120 hours. Other firms have established innovative training programs in partnership with state universities, as well as specialized team training for disturbance control and other emergencies. Evidence from the United Kingdom paints a similar picture. There, private firms must train their staff to the government’s training syllabus, and private prison staff measure up very well to government staff.

The takeaway is that employee training requirements are a policy decision that elected officials have ample discretion to control. Put simply, if policymakers want to mandate that private operators train their employees to American Correctional Association standards, for example, then they just need to embed that requirement into the contract as a critical piece of the initiative.

Lastly, Ryan’s assertions regarding the effects on public employees are specious. Again, from Reason’s FAQ:

Privatization need not mean layoffs. On average, privatization leads to only 7 percent of employees being laid off. […] A number of techniques have been developed as part of privatization programs for managing the transition of displaced government employees in as fair a way as possible. These include: requiring contractors to hire displaced workers (but not requiring them to replace workers who resign), offering early retirement, and shifting workers to other vacancies within the system.

Neither should privatization mean a dramatic loss of benefits. In fact, it can mean an increase. Employees should look at their own retirement plans and compare them to private plans before they decide. A typical government retirement plan deducts 3 to 5 percent of the employee’s earnings each year to pay into a pension plan, requires 10 years of employment in order to vest, and pays $3,000 to $7,000 a year in benefits after age 55 (or from the date of retirement if the employee serves 25 years or more).

For policymakers to make smart decisions, it’s critical that the policy discourse be based on fact, not myth. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be happening right now in Arizona.