Private prisons thrive despite repeated failures to justify a costly, dangerous industry

Matt Stroud

I follow the Heritage Foundation – and a number of other hard-right organizations and media companies – on Twitter and Facebook and Feedly and wherever else I can. Though I get teased by my progressive friends about this (a friend and journalism professor in Shanghai sent a shocked note earlier today: Matt, you like the Media Research Center????”), it’s worth doing. I like” the MRC on Facebook – as well as Heritage and Fox News and Human Events, among others – but for anthropological reasons. Not only do I get to see what enrages hardline conservatives, I also get to observe the very basic misrepresentations and untruths that seem to push people toward the kind of extreme thinking that defined the government shutdown earlier this month. It’s even worth a laugh sometimes. (And worth a cry other times.)

While waiting for a flight in Philadelphia on Thursday, for example, I got a laugh out of a Heritage tweet about the Affordable Care Act. 

The tweet went like this: The Irony: Private Sector Asked to Rescue #Obamacare Site.” It linked to a Free Enterprise post discussing how the administration’s tech surge” to fix health​care​.gov involved partnering with Verizon. This would be a fine anecdotal argument for the strength of private sector competition over blundering government work. But it completely ignores the fact that 55 contractors helped to build health​care​.gov. Private firms played as much of a role in the site’s problems as they likely will in the site’s success, in other words. So the simplistic argument is a complete wash; Heritage’s 58 character missive collapses on itself immediately. Which is kinda funny.

I often laugh in the same way when I read arguments about whether private prisons should continue to exist.

Private prison companies – the few, huge and proud companies contracted to help the federal government and many states deal with their overcrowded prisons – are under attack. The Huffington Post has run a few very good stories recently (particularly this one) about the problems that arise when prisoner populations are attached to Wall Street profits. The Atlantic has made similar points referencing private prison companies’ connection to immigration reform, and The Nation is in the midst of a marketing campaign with the ACLU and Beyond Bars to bring more attention to the Prison Profiteers” that not only thrive when people are imprisoned, but that write penalties against governments into their contracts when enough people aren’t thrown behind bars. A report in Cincinnati City Beat about the continued failure of the first Ohio prison to be sold to a private company also hit the web this week, along with more fallout from the disgraceful conditions discovered within Idaho’s private prisons. Plus, there’s the recent $2.5 million civil settlement in the wake of the infuriating kids for cash” scandal in which two Pennsylvania judges took kickbacks from a private prison operator to lock up increased numbers of juveniles.

Since it’s the largest private prison company in the nation, responsibility has fallen by default to the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America to make some kind of argument in favor of private prisons. And on Wednesday, in The Tennessean, its chief corrections officer, Harley Lappin, offered Goliath’s side of the story. CCA has provided millions in savings” to states such as Tennessee, he wrote, which was deemed by public officials to be the most cost effective following a competitive process.” Furthermore: A recent independent study” – which he fails to cite – reviewed state government data and found that we generate more than 17 percent in cost savings for Tennessee’s taxpayers. Those are savings that can be used for public safety and programming to help inmates develop the skills and values they need to be successful.”

Like the brief Heritage argument about the irony of the private sector’s role in fixing health​care​.gov, Lappin’s argument has a glimmer of logic to it. If private prison companies are able to provide cost savings over state-run prisons without putting the lives of prisoners at risk or subjecting those prisoners to cruel and unusual environments, then, sure, let them work their magic.

But as Alex Friedmann – a former prisoner in a private prison who now runs the ruthless and indispensable newsletter and website, Prison Legal Newsresponded in this morning’s Tennessean, Lappin’s argument leaves out the facts that render it absurd. It would be funny if it weren’t so egregious. Friedmann points out that CCA’s Tennessee contract includes contractual bed guarantees’ that compensate the company for a minimum number of prison or jail beds … even when they’re empty,” which has resulted in CCA receiving $487,917.27 for vacant beds….” He continued:

Despite this questionable use of public funds, Lappin contends that a recent independent study” found that CCA-run facilities generate more than 17 percent in cost savings for Tennessee’s taxpayers.” He also mentions in passing that the study received support from the private corrections industry.

However, he didn’t disclose that the study, by two Temple University professors, was in fact partly funded by CCA — which makes one wonder whether it is really independent.” In short, Mr. Lappin relied on a study, paid for by CCA and other private prison firms, to support his position that private prisons are cost-effective.

Other studies, conducted by government agencies that did not receive funding from CCA and other private prison companies, have found that prison privatization results in few, if any, savings — and may even cost more than publicly run prisons.

Mr. Lappin also cites CCA’s secure facilities” and implies that bed guarantees are somehow needed to operate prisons safely. Tell that to the family of Gerald Ewing, who was murdered at the CCA-operated South Central Correctional Facility on Sept. 1 during gang-related brawls that sent four other prisoners to local hospitals.

CCA’s argument is, in other words, meaningless. Weak. It collapses on itself immediately.

The misfired Heritage argument referenced above and the failure of CCA’s chief correction officer to defend private prisons show that the hard right and the private prison industry are seemingly aligned in their inability to prove a point without overlooking key facts.

But the sad truth is that both organizations have little need for reform, little need for change. Heritage recently passed 1 million Likes” on Facebook (many anthropological among them, I imagine) and still maintains an $80 million budget. And CCA, with its $4.38 billion market cap and its stock value consistently on the rise since 2001, has no one to placate but the politicians who continue to buy their misleading arguments on a grand scale.

I have no problem with either of these organizations doing what they can to make their argument and justify their existence in public. The First Amendment applies to all of us, after all. I just have a problem when these organizations misconstrue facts to prove their points. And I have a problem when the people who should care – the people who hand them millions of dollars (in taxpayer money, as is the case with CCA and other private prison companies) – apparently don’t. 

That’s nothing to laugh about.

 — — —

Follow me on Twitter where I post fascinating information and news about crime, law enforcement, and the prison industry.

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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 stroudjournalism<at>
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