Published in The Enterprise, 7-6-98

Prison Privatization: An Abdication of Responsibility to Reform an Outdated, Over-Priced Corrections System

by Rocky Anderson

The Utah Department of Corrections (DOC) currently has the most progressive leadership it has enjoyed since before the medieval administrations of Gary DeLand and Lane McCotter. However, it is about to embark on a disastrous course by seeking to turn over part of its prison system to a private corporation – consistent with a recent nation-wide trend that has accompanied record growths in incarceration rates throughout the country.

The DOC is about to begin the bidding process in order to turn over the responsibility for the construction and operation of a 500-bed medium security facility to a for-profit private prison company – notwithstanding that the last time DOC contracted with a private prison facility, 8 of 100 inmates (including two murderers) escaped.

The privatization of prisons is symptomatic of our burgeoning prison-industrial complex. This growth industry, comprised of such companies as Corrections Corporation of America (ranked by Fortune Magazine, September 29, 1997, as the 67th fastest growing small company in the United States), has emerged primarily because of the soaring rise in prison and jail populations throughout the country, with all of the attendant increases in costs to local, state and federal governments.

The solution to our current crisis is not to turn over the job of punishment and rehabilitation to for-profit corporations, with little or no historical record of saving money or providing better quality services than state-run corrections systems. Rather, the solution lies in providing rational and effective alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders and in incarcerating only dangerous offenders or those who refuse to comply with the terms of alternative sanctions. That approach will serve the interests of victims, offenders, and taxpayers.

The facts compel a more constructive, cost-effective, sensible approach:

  • At the end of 1996, 5.5 million people – 2.8% of all U.S. residents – were on probation, on parole, or incarcerated in jails or prisons.
  • At mid-year 1997, more than 1.7 million people were behind bars in the United States – in either federal or state prisons or locally – operated jails.
  • In 1990, there were 163 jail inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents; at mid-year 1997, for every 100,000 U.S. residents there were 212 jail inmates.
  • From mid-year 1996 to mid-year 1997, the local jail population increased by 9.4%, nearly twice the average annual increase of 4.9% since 1990.
  • In 1990, there were 292 prison inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents; by June 30, 1997, the number had soared to 436 men and women incarcerated in prisons for every 100,000 U.S. residents.
  • The United States has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  • In 1995, only 46% of State prison inmates were incarcerated for a violent offense. Among all State prison inmates in 1995, 24% were incarcerated for property offenses, 23% for drug offenses, and 7% for public-order offenses (e.g., drunk driving, escape/flight to avoid prosecution, commercialized vice, morals and decency charges, liquor law violations).
  • Approximately 60% of all federal inmates incarcerated in 1995 were serving a sentence for a drug offense.
  • In 1980, 19,000 men and women were in the custody of State correctional authorities because of drug-related convictions; by 1995, our State prisons, many of them overcrowded, held 225,000 inmates convicted for drug offenses.
  • Assuming recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 of every 20 persons can be expected to serve time in prison during their lifetime. The lifetime chances of men going to prison are 9 times greater than for women. The lifetime chances of newborn black males in the U.S. going to prison are 1 in 4; Hispanic males have a 1 in 6 chance; and white males have a 1 in 23 chance of serving time during their lives.
  • In 1996, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of Black prisoners surpassed the number of Whites incarcerated in prisons and jails.
  • By the end of 1995, nearly 7% of all adult Black males were in jail or prison.
  • Between 1985-1995, there was a 707% increase in incarceration of African-Americans for drug offenses, compared to an increase of 306% for Whites.
  • In 1985, Utah prisons held 1,624 inmates; that number increased 289% to 4,696 in 1997.
  • The Utah Department of Corrections budget jumped from $54.86 million in 1988 to $148.92 million in 1997.

Our Legislature and the Department of Corrections owe it to the people of this state to reform our criminal justice system rather than to abdicate the responsibility of our State government by turning over the construction and operation of our prisons to profit-motivated corporations. There can be no question that we need to make significant changes in how we deal with offenders, and that we can save millions in taxpayers’ money by taking a different approach. But shifting the responsibility of this core governmental function to for-profit companies is no more than a cry of defeat and resignation – and will only aggravate the serious flaws in our current approach to corrections.