Private Prisons: Public Nightmare

There's been an explosion in the for-profit prison industry, as states and counties look to contracting out of prison services as a way to cut costs. But a CWA review of these for-profit operations shows privatization to be a very scary proposition, one that threatens public safety and increases taxpayer costs.

CWA, which represents some 40,000 members in law enforcement, including corrections officers in Florida, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Mississippi and other jurisdictions, has been fighting against efforts to enrich private companies at the expense of public dollars and public safety, said Brooks Sunkett, vice president for public and health care workers.

CWA's report, "The Truth About Prison Privatization," not only provides hard evidence to counter the deceptive claims of for-profit prison advocates, but it reinforces the real danger to public safety - and the growing abuse and mistreatment of inmates - that prison privatization brings.

Fears for Public Safety

In the for-profit prison system, cutting costs boosts profits for stockholders, but it also means that private prisons have inadequate staff to do the job right. The result - prisoner escapes, riots, damage to facilities - are situations that must be cleaned up by government and paid for in tax dollars.

Idaho had sent several hundred prisoners to a for-profit detention center in Basile, La. Five of those inmates - including two murderers and a rapist - escaped. That escape followed a riot by 100 Idaho inmates that caused $35,000 in damages. A review by the Idaho Dept. of Corrections concluded that violent offenders shouldn't have been housed at the facility in the first place.

In the first eight months after Corrections Corp. of America took over a prison in Clifton, Tenn., there were eight reported escapes and a staggering increase in inmate violence. CCA's operation of the Hernando County, Fla. jail resulted in seven escapes in seven months; 13 inmates escaped from the Hamilton, County, Tenn. penal farm over a two-year period.

Abuse, Mistreatment, Riots

Earlier this year, prisoners from Missouri who were housed in a Brazoria County, Tex. jail were shocked with stun guns, abused by guards and bitten by dogs at the facility operated by Capital Correctional Resources (CCR) The shocking video, shown nationally on television, was reportedly used in company training.

In New Jersey, the state's contracting out of prisoner medical care was a key issue in the gubernatorial race. The company in question, Correctional Medical Services has been blamed for a number of inmate deaths and deficient care in facilities it operates in other states.

Debunking the Myths

Private prisons don't save money, according to the most recent review by the U.S. General Accounting Office. In fact, cost studies conducted in Florida and Oklahoma by the U.S. Marshals Service, the Urban Institute and other groups found that private prisons cost more.

Public safety is at risk, as private prisons reduce staff and hire less qualified personnel. Since labor costs are 60 percent of the operating costs of a correctional facility, private prisons focus on cutting staff.

Public accountability is replaced by accountability only to shareholders. Corruption and kickbacks also have been uncovered.

"The quality of inmate maintenance, and how it is carried out, gets lost, because the public doesn't really want to pay attention to this issue. We're trying hard to get the public to realize what the issues really are," said John Burpo, director of CWA's national coalition of public safety officers.

"Unfortunately, some politicians and elected officials simply say that privatization will save tax dollars. This just isn't true, but it's a difficult message to fight against, especially in corrections."

In Florida, where some 5,500 prisoners are in minimum security or other facilities under private contract, there is a big push to take over prison and security functions.

Al Shopp, director of CWA Local 3191 representing Florida corrections officers, said "there should be no question in anybody's mind" that public safety comes far ahead of profit. Unfortunately, in Florida, that's not necessarily the case.

A Growth Industry

There are nearly a dozen smaller centers in Florida now operated by such companies as Wackenhut, CCA and U.S. Corrections Corp. "These companies don't have the ability or the expertise to handle the troubled inmate, and they aren't dealing with the problems," Shopp noted. Under Florida law, only new, privately built facilities can be privatized; older jails and prisons cannot. This has resulted in a big difference between those public prisons and contracted out ones. "The older, state-run prisons also are the place for inmates with discipline problems, the hard-core cases, and those needing special attention," he said.

The private companies want to be able to pick and choose - what services they will provide, which inmates they will be responsible for - and want to be able to raise the price when they see fit. But in the public institutions, staffed by public employees, "the state does its all - discipline, rehabilitation, education, medical treatment - and at a better price for the taxpayer, both in terms of dollars and public safety," Shopp said.

Community Support

Shopp said the Florida corrections officers are working with community groups - especially senior citizen organizations - in building the Partners in Protection coalition. They've also been taking their message to the state legislature and have been successful, despite a major lobbying effort by Wackenhut.

In New Jersey, the governor's privatization scheme started with the contracting out of medical, dental and psychiatric treatment for prisoners. The costs have been great - the jobs of nearly 400 CWA members, an additional $4 million given to CMS for 1996, other "hidden" charges that the taxpayers pick up without knowing it, and serious charges about deficient CMS operations.

CWA Local 1040 presented the facts behind the privatization scheme in radio spots, membership mailings and other materials, pointing out that the savings the governor promised just weren't going to happen. Since 1995, when the $180 million contract with CMS was first negotiated, treatment of prisoners with AIDS and HIV infections was drastically cut; psychological and substance abuse services were eliminated; and medical services have been very poorly administered, the local pointed out.

Earlier this year, the state assembly blocked another of the governor's prison privatization plans - the contracting out of food service and building maintenance.

The Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, CWA Local 3570, has been contending with CCA as the giant firm has been lobbying hard in the state legislature to take over corrections in the state.

Over the past several legislative sessions, CWA "has been staying on top of all these efforts to privatize state services," said Bill Chandler, executive vice president for organization. "The biggest problem is in corrections, where privatization is a very serious threat" and understaffing is a common occurrence, he said. This is a public safety issue, and a safety issue for our 3,800 members in corrections, he added.

Dangerous Conditions

In Oklahoma, CWA Local 6086, which represents some 400 corrections officers among its 1,600 state worker members, has been focusing attention on the serious problem of understaffing in prisons.

"Oklahoma needs to hire more prison officers and needs to invest in the public/state system. Instead, it's ignoring the real problems, privatizing prison operations and shipping inmates out of state," said Hank DeSio, a CWA organizing coordinator.

"We believe there should be a trigger mechanism for hiring new officers as the number of inmates increases, and we've taken this proposal to both the board of corrections and the state legislature," he said.

There is one group that comes out ahead when prisons are privatized, and that is the chief executive officers at the for-profit prison companies. The CWA report found that compensation and stock options for the CEOs at Wackenhut ($721,000) and CCA ($1.3 million) were more than 13 times the salary of a well-compensated director of a state corrections department.