The myth put forth by private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group that private prisons are cheaper than public prisons is shattered by a new report from In the Public Interest, thus undercutting the primary rationale for prison privatization efforts across the country. When pushing for contracts with the many states that use private prisons, these corporations claim they are the better option because they can run prisons more cheaply than the government can. But this report not only dispels that idea, it highlights some of the less-than-savory activities the corporations engage in because of the perverse incentives created by these contracts.
The report details several methods through which private prison companies mislead governments and the public about their supposed cost savings, particularly hiding costs of private prisons, inflating public prison costs, benefiting from mandated occupancy minimums and delaying cost increases until after contracts are signed.
Numerous studies have shown that private prisons are more expensive than their publicly run counterparts. The report details a series of meta-analyses of individual studies conducted on the comparative costs between public and private prisons, and all of them found that cost savings, at best, were minimal for private prisons—in many cases, private prisons were more expensive. One of the few studies that showed private prisons to be more cost-effective was funded by the prison companies and is currently the subject of an ethics inquiry at Temple University. A close examination of many of the states that have invested heavily in prison privatization has shown the failure of the "private prisons are cheaper" idea:
- Arizona: The state found private prisons can cost up to $1,600 per prisoner per year, despite private prisons often only housing the healthiest prisoners.
- Florida: Three separate multiyear studies found the majority of the private prisons in the state failed to meet the legally mandated 7% cost savings, while half of the private prisons failed to save any money at all.
- Georgia: In 2011, private prisons cost the state $45.81 per prisoner per day, compared with $44.51 per prisoner per day in publicly run prisons.
- Hawaii: The state found the projected savings of using private prison contractors were based on bed capacity rather than the actual number of people incarcerated and that indirect administration costs were not included.
- New Mexico: Over a five-year period, the state saw its annual spending on private prisons increase by 57% while the prisoner population only increased 21%. A significant portion of the increase was because of automatic price increases included in contracts with the private prison corporations.
- Ohio: The state expected the private operation of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution would save the state $2.4 million a year, but it has turned out to instead cost the state $380,000 to $700,000 a year.
As the report notes:
To maximize returns for their investors, for-profit prison companies have perverse incentives to cut costs in vital areas such as security personnel, medical care and programming, threatening the health and safety of prisoners and staff.
There are several different reasons that savings fail to materialize. CCA and other companies explicitly seek to increase their profits by changing the details of previously signed contracts. They do this by raising the per diem rates the state pays for each prisoner or by requiring occupancy rates of 90% or higher or the state pays for the empty cells in order to reach the required level. Private prison companies cherry pick their inmates and refuse to house more expensive prisoners. Many contracts exclude those higher-cost prisoners, such as those in maximum security, on death row, female prisoners or prisoners that have serious medical or mental health conditions. Companies also make their costs look lower by inflating the cost of public incarceration when making their sales pitch. They can do this by leaving out overhead costs in their prisons, not including costs the state has to pay in either public or private scenarios in the private prison cost but keeping them in the public prison cost calculation, and leaving out the additional costs of overseeing and monitoring private prisons that the state must engage in if it properly oversees its contractors.
At its national convention last year, the AFL-CIO came out in opposition to the privatization of prisons and the profit motive being used to increase incarceration.
Read the full report.