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

Matt Stroud

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 stroudjournalism<at>gmail.com.
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