Prison Escape Highlights System Woes

Who will correct the corrections system?

It has been over a month since seven armed men, all serving sentences from 30 years to life, escaped from the John B. Connally Jr. maximum-security prison in Texas. Authorities believe the escapees murdered an Irving, Texas, police officer during a Christmas Eve robbery.

Still on the loose, two of the suspects were allegedly spotted in a Texas bank, leading to fears of more mayhem.

While much of the coverage has centered on the dramatic escape and the weaknesses of the prison–how they easily seized uniforms, keys to a prison truck, even guns and ammunition-you do not hear demands that the state government get out of the prison business.

Had the escape occurred at a privately operated prison, a chorus of voices would no doubt argue the event was proof positive that private companies should not be given such an important task.

While the escape highlights the unbalanced treatment private prisons endure, it also highlights of one of the most significant problems with the existing correctional system in this country-and ironically, one of the benefits of governments contracting out for correctional services with the private sector.

If a private prison permitted this escape, heads would roll across the state like tumbleweeds. Yet it remains uncertain what changes, if any, officials will make at Connally in the wake of this escape.

Contrary to union rhetoric, which views privatization as inherently bad, accountability is increased at private prisons. Contracts introduce an additional level of accountability through the monitoring process.

Most governments have public employees monitoring performance of private prisons, so someone is watching the watchmen. At public prisons, by contrast, the state department of corrections monitors itself.

By putting the government in the role as independent monitor with the power to fire poor-performing companies, states have a more powerful hand than if it is the state department of corrections that is failing.

Moreover, as private companies want to attract new customers and retain existing contracts, they have an incentive to provide high-quality service, an incentive public facilities do not have. Escapes, inmate beatings and riots certainly look bad on a resume.

While a blue-ribbon panel may convene to study the escape and make recommendations, little else is likely to occur. Most of the people in charge of the facility will remain and few will suffer personal reprimand, suspension or termination.

Recent events at other public prisons confirm this. After allegations of guard-organized “gladiator fights” between inmates came to light at California’s Corcoran Prison, only the whistleblower lost his job.

Due to protective labor laws that shield even the most egregious violations, and a general lack of accountability in public institutions, this is the state of affairs at many public prisons.

Clearly, the Connally prison needs serious reforms. Major incidents have plagued the facility in the past. Unfortunately, these warning signs failed to stimulate changes. For the Irving police officer, his family and citizens that may still encounter the seven Connally escapees, it is too late.

While the escape may have occurred at another facility, even a private one, we can be sure of one thing: A private prison would not walk away from this a mere slap on the wrist.

While the focus now should be on capturing the seven dangerous criminals, afterward we need to take a serious look at the way our prisons operate and explore new ways to ensure heightened accountability that prevent future incidents.

Geoffrey Segal is director of privatization and government reform at Reason Foundation