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The Prison Complex

Thursday, Jan 9, 2014, 7:00 am

Study funded by private prison dollars praises private prisons; no comment, says public university

By Matt Stroud

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In April of last year, Temple University -- one of four "state-related" universities in Pennsylvania that receives millions in public funding every year -- revealed in a press release that researchers from its Center for Competitive Government had made surprising findings about the costs and benefits of private prisons. They found, for example, that governments will experience "long-run savings of 12 percent to 58 percent when comparing private and public" prison facilities, and that private prisons "generate significant savings without sacrificing quality." This was noteworthy, since previous research has tended to find no data supporting those conclusions at all. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, for example, found that cost savings of private prisons are virtually nonexistant, and that the real benefit of private prisons is in threatening government administrators to use them: "the mere prospect of privatization had a positive effect on [public] prison adminstration, making it more responsive to reform." A 2011 New York Times report made similar conclusions, based on an Arizona auditor general's report finding that "it may be more costly to house inmates in private prisons” than in state-run prisons.

The Temple study inspired questions, to say the least -- not the least of which comes from the very last line of the Temple press release, which reveals that the study got its funding from "members of the private prison industry." And Alex Friedmann -- a former prisoner in a private prison who's now the longtime editor of Prison Legal News and who also heads the Private Corrections Institute, which opposes prison privatization -- pointed out some glaring issues. The following letter written to the Maine Compass newspaper responds to an op-ed the Temple researchers published with the newspaper. Friedmann's letter is reproduced below:

Temple University professors Simon Hakim and Erwin Blackstone ... neglected to mention that their research lauding the benefits of prison privatization was funded by "members of the private prison industry," according to a press release issued by Temple University. Likewise, their study itself, which has not been published or peer-reviewed, fails to reveal that it was funded by private prison firms.

Hakim and Blackstone further neglected to mention that they may have a predisposition to favor the private sector, as they both have previously advocated for the privatization of government services -- including privatized police functions.

The public has a right to know when academic research is funded by for-profit companies that directly benefit from the results of that research. Both CCA and GEO Group, the nation's leading private prison companies, are promoting the Temple study.

It's remarkable how research that is funded by private prison firms frequently finds cost savings or other benefits through prison privatization, while studies that do not receive industry funding typically report no such benefits.

Friedman then filed an ethics complaint with Temple University. He elaborated further in an email regarding why:

Both CCA and GEO have cited the study extensively; both have published info about the study and links to the study press release on their websites and/or FB pages; CCA also launched a Twitter campaign when the study was released.

CCA repeatedly cites the Temple study in its propaganda pieces, though they are now mentioning the "industry funding" of the study (example 1, 2)

Also, the study authors, Blackstone and Hakim, submitted op-eds on the results of their study, lauding the cost savings of prison privatization, in at least 5 newspapers. All but one of their op-eds did not mention that CCA and other private prison firms had funded the study.

Note that the Temple study follows a pattern of specious academic research into prison privatization that is funded by the private prison industry. This includes a Vanderbilt study that was funded by CCA and APTCO (an industry organization for private prison service providers). Plus, of course, Prof. Charles Thomas at the U of Florida, who was the go-to researcher on prison privatization in the 1990s, and whose research found benefits from privatization. He resigned/retired and was hit with a $20,000 ethics fine after it was revealed that he owned stock in private prison companies, sat on the board of Prison Realty Trust (a CCA spinoff) and had been paid $3 million by Prison Realty/CCA. Can't make this stuff up.

Late last month, I emailed Michele Masucci, Temple's Vice Provost for Research, to find out about the status of Friedmann's complaint. Her response follows: 

Thank you for your inquiry. In order to protect the integrity of the review process including the rights of all individuals involved, we cannot share the status of ongoing investigations.

More to come.

Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalismgmail.com.

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