New Hampshire Exploring Prison Privatization

Earlier today I had the privilege of being a guest on The Exchange with Laura Knoy, an hour-long daily call-in show focused on news and public affairs hosted by New Hampshire Public Radio. Todays show covers the use of privately operated prisons across the U.S. and around the world. It also includes discussion of whether New Hampshire should move forward with proposed plans to send inmates to privately operated prisons. Full-length audio of the episode is available online here.

Note: At one point in the interview I say, “In a majority of privately operated prisons there are state employees overseeing operations within that prison 24/7.” To clarify, I mean that privately operated prisons remain under careful watch by states through state employees in the facility, closed circuit television recordings and/or through meticulous documentation of daily operation.

The conversation spans many aspects of America’s correctional system and includes discussion of how public-private partnerships are being used to effectively deliver correctional services both in the U.S. and around the world. There is special focus on how a new “Corrections 2.0” approach is being explored in the United Kingdom and Florida. Under this next-level approach, the financial incentives of the private sector align with government’s goals of maintaining public safety, reducing recidivism, improving rehabilitation and lowering costs. (For more on the Corrections 2.0 approach, see this study by my colleagues Leonard Gilroy and Adrian Moore.)

During the show we were only able to scratch the surface on the issues facing New Hampshire in providing correctional services. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, over the past ten years New Hampshire’s prison population has increased 31%, while lawmakers have doubled spending on corrections. Meanwhile the Department of Corrections is expected to be the only state agency whose funding will increase over the next biennium.

What have New Hampshire taxpayers gotten for their money? The Council of State Governments Justice Center recently published a revealing study, some highlights of their findings include:

  • The number of women admitted to prison has increased dramatically, while women’s recidivism rates are also on the rise.
  • The number of parolees who fail on supervision and are revoked has increased 50% since 2000.
  • Recidivism rates are highest amongst 17-19 year olds, with 60% returning back to prison after release.
  • The state has inadequate integrated mental health and substance abuse services, creating significant challenges for police officers and emergency first responders.

Last year New Hampshire lawmakers passed Senate Bill 500 into law, which makes it so nonviolent criminals will be released after serving 120 percent of their minimum prison sentences. All prisoners will be paroled at least nine months before their minimum prison sentences, and all parole violators would face 90 days back in jail in a special program designed to re-engage them in their parole plans. The legislature’s intention with SB 500 is to address the failure of the prison system to adequately prepare inmates for re-entry into society, however states cannot exclusively legislate recidivism reduction. A Corrections 2.0 approach that embraces partnering with the private sector to individually meet the needs of inmates should also be used.

More recently State Senator John Morse, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has publicly sought to cut costs for the Department of Corrections. The Nashua Telegraph reports he proposed relocating 600 inmates to private facilities in order to realize around $11 million in savings over the next biennium. Sen. Morse also asked lawmakers to study the state’s entire corrections system saying, “The reality is, the department (of corrections) can’t continue to grow and grow and grow in costs.” It’s worth noting these cuts serve to reduce the Department of Corrections’ budget increase, and the agency is still expected to be the only one in the state to receive a funding increase (2% over the next biennium.)

New Hampshire is not alone in facing these difficult policy questions. In fact, Granite State policymakers need look no further than Vermont for better understanding of how to work with the private sector to find cost-savings. Vermont has the third highest percentage (30%) of inmates kept in privately operated prisons of any state. Vermont is effectively partnering with the private sector to deliver more cost-effective correctional services without sacrificing quality, why isn’t New Hampshire?

Full-length audio of the aforementioned interview is available online here. For more on public-private partnerships in corrections, see Reason Foundation’s Corrections Policy Research Archive.