Imbalanced Reporting on Private Prisons

Palm Beach Post series on private prisons is example of one-sided journalism

Despite the fact that private prisons have been in existence for roughly three decades and only account for approximately eight percent of the federal and state prison population, sensationalized media stories about private corrections remain fairly common. The Palm Beach Post‘s current month-long article series on the private prison industry in Florida-entitled “Profit, Politics and Pain”-is the latest in a long line of one-sided journalism that does a disservice to substantive policy discourse.

The first article in the series (“Startling patterns of violence, cost cutting” Oct. 27) claims that private prisons are not saving the state money, despite a statutory mandate that contracted prison operations save the state at least seven percent relative to in-house operation before a contract can proceed. The Post reports data from 2009-2011 that show that four of six private prisons analyzed failed to meet the seven percent savings threshold. Yet, to reach these figures, the Post manipulated the cost data collected from the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).

The Post “stripped” the FDOC data of what it deems “the state’s convoluted formula” for calculating savings, but the original data are actually more accurate by design. The Post takes issue with the state’s use of FDOC-generated public sector comparator cost estimates that are compared to hard bids from the private sector in determining whether the seven percent threshold is met. There is no direct cost data for what it would cost FDOC to operate these facilities themselves (because these facilities are already run privately), so FDOC builds a public sector comparator cost model based on what it costs the state to run facilities similar in size, scope and security level. Given the lack of true apples-to-apples cost numbers, this is a reasonable option. For over a decade, the Texas Legislative Budget Board has used a very similar methodology to calculate public-vs-private prison operating costs in that state as part of its Criminal Justice Uniform Cost Report series.)

In building the public sector comparator, FDOC essentially uses costs from facilities it runs that are similar in scale to the private facility in question, and then adjusts those costs to account for substantive differences in operations, including the programming and rehabilitation provided to inmates. The Post criticizes these adjustments, noting that “the state calculation typically inflates the public prison costs […] because the public prison is almost always assigned costs for programming it doesn’t provide.” This is true but justified-the private sector is asked to provide a higher, more costly level of programming, so additional costs are added to the public sector comparator to account for the difference and allow for a fair comparison.

To reach its conclusion that four of six private prisons are not meeting the seven percent savings threshold, the Post removed the programming adjustments. As a result, their calculations lowered the cost of the public sector comparator facilities, thereby reducing the cost savings shown by the privately operated facilities.

What is missing from the Post‘s analysis is that the adjustments are there precisely because the private sector is being asked to deliver a higher level of programming than the public facilities are doing. In other words, the state is trying to purchase a higher quality service than they are delivering themselves, so it’s fundamentally unfair to compare costs of a facility delivering a better product with one delivering a lower quality product on an unadjusted basis. If the state required its facilities to provide the same level of programming as that required of the private sector, the in-house costs would necessarily increase-exactly the point of the adjustments.

If there was no difference in the programming delivered by the public and private facilities, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the difference is significant. Last year, the Florida Chamber of Commerce collected data from FDOC and two private prison operators that compared educational, vocational and life skills programming in two privately operated facilities relative to an entire FDOC region (including over 20 facilities). The Chamber found that:

“With far fewer inmates, privately run South Bay and More Haven still provide more overall programming staff than DOC’s Region IV institutions. Perhaps the two most telling numbers in this comparison are staff-to-inmate ratio and inmate participation. At the privately run Moore Haven and South Bay facilities, one program staff member is available for every 38 inmates, a far superior level than the 1­to­272 ratio in Region IV. This may well explain why 8 out of 10 inmates at the two privately run facilities participate in personal improvement programs, while barely more than one in five do so in the Region IV institutions.”

The Post‘s analysis also failed to balance out their reporting with a few significant points that would have been useful context for readers:

  • The public sector comparator per-diem costs used in the state’s public/private cost comparisons are reviewed and certified by the state’s Auditor General, providing an outside check on their calculations.
  • The Florida Department of Management Services-the agency responsible for procuring and overseeing the prison contracting process-presented data to the House Appropriations Committee in early 2012 showing private per-diem rates from recent procurements ranging from 10 to 27 percent lower than the estimated costs of in-house delivery.
  • The Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability (OPPAGA) issued a research memorandum in April 2013 reviewing the cost savings achieved in three privately operated prisons with contracts expiring later in the year. Two of the facilities (Graceville and Bay) saw savings of 21 percent and 9 percent, respectively, averaged over the previous two years of the contracts. The other (Moore Haven) saw savings of 8.1 percent the first year and 0.3 percent in the second year, averaging a 4.2 percent savings; however, OPPAGA notes that these results can be attributed to a significant decrease in public sector costs in fiscal year 2011-12-the result of higher employee contributions to pensions and a significant lowering of the state’s contribution to special risk retirements-which both represent public sector cost reductions that could not have been foreseen in advance when the contracts were originally bid and signed.
  • Recent research from Temple University’s Center for Competitive Government analyzed government data from nine states with higher numbers of inmates in privately operated prisons (Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas) and Maine (which does not contract out prison operations), and found that the use of contracted prison operations brings long-run cost savings of 12 percent to 58 percent, with equal or better levels of performance than publicly-operated prisons. In Florida, the researchers found that the state is achieving cost savings of approximately 17 percent on a long-term basis through correctional contracting.

In a similar imbalanced fashion, the Post followed its cost savings piece with an article (“‘Parade of horribles’ in private prisons,” Nov. 3) claiming that “squalor, rape, murder and riots,” are a “pattern” in private prisons nationwide. The Post compiled data from audits, reports, criminal cases and civil lawsuits in 20 states since 2000 and presented several anecdotes of incidents from different states to paint a broad-brush picture depicting private prisons as rife with such horrors.

Again, what’s missing here is any sense of perspective. Do bad things happen in private prisons? Absolutely. After all, these are prisons, not hospitals, and they hold many people who do bad things. But bad things-riots, assaults, murders and the like-happen in government-operated prisons too, though you would never know it from the Post‘s article because they failed to provide any relative context.

For example, earlier this month, five Los Angeles County jail inmates won a lawsuit over excessive force filed against guards who beat them during a riot. Earlier this year, the Washington Post exposed extensive corruption in Maryland’s state correctional system, with stories of guards working in tandem with prison gangs to smuggle drugs and cellphones into facilities, operate a money-laundering operation, facilitate attacks on other inmates, and engage in various other kinds of wrongdoing. Last August, Chicago-area radio station WBEZ reported that it was blocked by the state from doing on-site reporting on overcrowding and deteriorating conditions in Illinois’ prison system. In 2009, the Post itself reported on the latest in “a string of attacks by guards on inmates” in government-operated prisons in Florida.

And then there’s the entire state of California-the current poster child of public prison dysfunction-which for years has lived with a federal receivership over its prison healthcare system and since 2006 has struggled to comply with federal judicial directives to reduce the severe, criminogenic overcrowding in its state correctional system that created prison conditions so poor as to be unconstitutional.

Examples of prison abuses are abundant, but to focus on just the private side, as the Post did, to the exclusion of government-run prisons, seems more aimed at demonizing the former than providing readers with true context on the reality of U.S. prisons overall. Bad things happen in public prisons and private prisons alike.

It’s worth pointing out that incidents in private prisons tend to get more coverage because the very process of privatization tends to invite more scrutiny-and ultimately, accountability-than public correctional agencies receive. It’s easier to sue private prisons than it is to sue state governments, so legal challenges tend to be well reported. It’s also routine for state correctional agencies to require on-site contract monitors, spot audits and other types of reporting and oversight as part of private prison contracts in order to find problems and keep a check on operational quality, even though they don’t require similar types of oversight for the prisons they run themselves. In essence, the watchmen tend to have the luxury of watching themselves in the public sector, while private prisons face scrutiny from their agency clients, elected officials, media, outside interest groups, internal contract compliance auditors, and shareholders.

None of this is meant to excuse lapses in operational quality by private prisons. Problems and incidents will inevitably arise, and operators should be given a chance to remedy the situation, albeit on a short leash. If they ultimately fail to improve conditions, their public sector clients should fire them and hire a new operator, which has happened many times in practice. If private prison guards violate professional ethics and standards, they should be fired. Private prisons should be held to high standards in their contracts through accreditation requirements, strict performance measurements and the like. This creates an environment of accountability and transparency that exceeds that in the public sector, where it’s difficult to hold public employees accountable for performance and where agencies get wide latitude to monitor themselves.

What we shouldn’t do is fall prey to sensationalistic, overly reductionist reporting that demonizes the private sector that houses roughly eight percent of the federal and state prison population while failing to account for the public sector responsible for housing the other 92 percent of the population. Public and private prisons face similar challenges, and such one-sided media treatment does a disservice to those citizens and policymakers interested in ensuring quality operations throughout the entirety of our public correctional systems.

Leonard Gilroy is the director of government reform at Reason Foundation.