Reality Check on Connecticut Prisons

You’ve got to hand it to some people. Part of Gov. John G. Rowland’s budget plan is to save $20 million a year by sending about 2,000 inmates from Connecticut’s overcrowded prisons to private prisons in other states. But no matter how severe a budget crisis, or how deep the cuts that must be made, some people fight tooth and nail to expand their piece of the pie.

A good example is the attempt by the union representing state prison guards to avoid a little competition. It argues that the governor’s plan will not save money or may even wind up costing more money, and it predicts problems with how inmates will be treated in private prisons.

What union members are really afraid of is that the governor’s plan will work, that it will save money and provide adequately for the inmates, and that the competition will turn up the heat on Connecticut’s own prisons.

Start with cost savings. More than half of the states use private prisons because they offer lower costs. Nearly 150,000 U.S. inmates are in private prisons. And the research backs them up. Reason Foundation research identified 28 studies comparing the costs of private and government prisons, and 22 of them found that private prisons cost less – on average about 15 percent less. The other six studies found private and government prison costs to be similar. None found private prisons more costly.

Even better, research shows that states that use private prisons tend to see costs fall in their state-run prisons as well. That shouldn’t really be surprising – competition tends to do that.

Dire speculations about the quality of treatment of inmates in private prisons also do not stand up to experience in the real world. Again, Reason identified nine studies that compared quality of care in private vs. government prisons. Eight of the studies found the quality of private prisons as high as or higher than government-run prisons.

In fact, private prisons are more accountable than government prisons. All prisons face the challenges of inmate fights, rapes, attacks on guards and so on. The true indicator of accountability is what happens after the incident. When something goes wrong in a private prison, people lose their jobs, and in some cases private prison firms have gone out of business after failing to perform.

Contrast that with the glacial speed of change in government prisons. It is extremely rare that state prison workers or management are held accountable for problems. They almost never lose their jobs. Instead we get empty promises of new policies that fall far short of the changes true accountability would demand.

Even in day-to-day management, private prisons are held to higher standards. By competing with government prisons and each other, private prisons raise the bar for what we expect from our correctional system. Remember the old saying: He who pays the piper calls the tune. By establishing government as an independent monitor with the power to ax companies that don’t perform, a corrections system that includes using private prisons is more responsive. Private prisons bring competition into the stagnant world of correctional management and spur innovations in prison design and operation. They shake up correctional departments, bringing accountability to systems otherwise fraught with corruption, crisis and controversy. Public officials must recognize their power to hold private prisons accountable and capitalize on it.

The way you balance a budget is to make smart choices about each activity of government. That is what Gov. Rowland is trying to do in this case, and Connecticut taxpayers should not let a state employee union’s fear of competition cloud the facts and common sense.

Adrian Moore is Vice President of Reason Foundation.