Mythbusting: Private Prisons and Inmate Safety

As states struggle to deal with rapidly rising corrections costs, policymakers in a number of states are discussing the possibility of expanding their use of private prisons. This is a complex subject with a rich history, so it’s critical that ensuing policy debates be grounded in fact, not fiction. In that light, it’s particularly disappointing to see things like this:

According to former Willacy County District Attorney, Juan Guerra, an inmate is five times more likely to die in a private prison than in a government prison

With all due respect to District Attorney Guerra, this claim is patently absurd:

  • Reason has researched private prisons for years, and I’ve never seen any research supporting this claim.
  • The claim defies logic in a very fundamental way—how could the private prison industry even exist if this was true? They couldn’t. Dozens of states and federal agencies utilize private prisons today—accounting for nearly 200,000 inmates nationwide— and have so for many years. It’s not even remotely conceivable that they would be successful marketing their services to public policymakers if death rates were magnitudes higher in private prisons relative to those under public operation.
  • The notion that private prisons are somehow less safe than public facilities is unfounded. Private corrections companies have a long track record of safe operations and are routinely held contractually to higher safety and performance standards than even public prisons are able to meet. Put simply, if these companies can’t demonstrate a strong safety record, they won’t be able to retain existing customers and attract new ones.
  • To this end, most privately-operated prisons meet or exceed the performance standards outlined by the American Correctional Association (ACA), a national organization providing professional certification and accreditation of correctional facilities to ensure that they meet high operating standards in such areas as safety and emergency procedures, staff training and development, and sanitation and food services. By contrast, in many states public prisons do not hold themselves to these same standards (which is one of the reasons private prisons are so attractive—policymakers can mandate the achievement and/or maintenanace of accreditation as part of a performance-based contract). Hence, officials should probably be more concerned about the safety of felons held in public facilities, as opposed to private prisons.
  • The reality is that private corrections companies already receive strong regulation and oversight from the local governments in which they locate facilities, and they also have to live up to the standards set by the public-sector customers (such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service, and several state corrections agencies) they serve. Further, each individual private prison has a comprehensive emergency plan in place to guide response actions and coordinate the law enforcement response to any potential safety incident.

More on this subject from Reason’s FAQ on prison privatization:

Arguably, abuse and violations of rights should be easier to prevent in private prisons than in government prisons. Due process is not only implicit in the law of the land; it is usually explicit in private prison contracts. Prisoners have more legal options against private prison officials than against government officials. Private prisons are monitored by state inspectors, and the state is liable for abuses committed by employees of the private firm, so they have an incentive to monitor their conduct. Government correctional departments police themselves, with obvious conflict of interest.

In addition, private prisons offer public officials two powerful tools to ensure good conduct. First, a well-written, performance-based contract will reward the private firm for providing the kind of care public officials require. Tying compensation to measurable outcomes in public safety and prisoner treatment puts the private operating firm in the business of serving the public interest. Second, private firms find that mistreating inmates only creates resentment and hostility, which makes managing the prison more difficult and costly. They find that a softer touch can make long-run management more effective, such as in Florida, where private prisons’ management style has led to much lower levels of violence than in the state-run prisons. A number of studies have shown similar comparisons in other states.

With the pressure on state corrections budgets today, we should welcome a substantive discussion of private prisons as a primary strategy to keep budgets in check (a strategy validated by the findings of this 2008 Vanderbilt University study). But it’s critical for the discussion to take place on terra firma, free of the absurd myths like that espoused by District Attorney Guerra.