But the industry doesn’t always win. Resistance isn’t futile.
The industry wanted to buy five prisons in Ohio but had to settle for one. Community members pushed back and corrections professionals raised doubts about cost savings and program effectiveness. Policy Matters Ohio demonstrated that selling the prison will likely cost more money than it produces. Yes, the state gets $73 million immediately for the sale — but the lease commits the state to pay $4 million annually for 20 years. So depending how cost estimates are done, the sale will end up costing the state anywhere from $8 million to $15 million more than traditional corrections.
Florida shows that the prison industry can’t make an honest case for the product it sells. The move to privatize 24 prisons was slipped into the annual budget bill, and opponents were literally eliminated. The Corrections chief, Edwin Buss, was forced to resign after expressing doubt that a proper “business case” for cost savings could be made. Senator Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland), an outspoken critic of privatization, was stripped of her seat on the Criminal Justice Committee, where such legislation is ordinarily heard. Senator Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey) was stripped of his chairmanship of the Committee on Criminal Justice Appropriations when he questioned the accelerated process, compressed hearing schedule, and absence of opposing experts.
The legislation institutionalizes secrecy. SB 2036 exempts prisons from the “applicable cost benefit analyses, business case analyses, performance contracting procedures, service comparisons, and impacts on performance standards” used in every other procurement. No such analysis would be done until after the contract has been executed.
SB 2036 turns procurement into a joke. First, buy my car. Then, after you buy it, you can check my car’s condition, compare it to your own car or see if you need a new car at all.
A truly heroic effort killed the bill. A lawsuit by the Police Benevolent Association enforced the state law requiring that such action be in separate legislation not buried in general appropriations. Organized labor, faith groups and local leaders rose up in opposition. The privatization failed in a 21-19 Senate vote on Valentines Day.
Now Michigan. Michigan is interesting because it holds a bleeding wound. The North Lake Correctional Center in Baldwin was private from the beginning, built by Wackenhut now known as the GEO Group. The prison opened in 1999, closed in 2005, and had nothing but problems in between.
The North Lake prison was more expensive than 33 out of 37 other Michigan prisons. The state was paying $75.81 per person per day for confinement that cost $64.89 per day in sufficiently secure state facilities — even though the contractor was failing to provide counseling programs or contractually required levels of staff. At the same time, North Lake was three times more violent than Michigan’s other maximum-security prisons. In the first five months of operation North Lake reported 110 critical incidents, including 46 assaults and 12 attempted suicides.
The state didn’t even need the secure space it thought it might — so it did the right thing. It served notice and closed the facility.
GEO sued to keep the prison open or compel the state to continue making lease payments anyway. But GEO lost the lawsuit and the facility sat empty for years. GEO spent $60 million renovating it from 500 juveniles to 1,700 adults and landed some inmates from California for a few months in 2011 — but the contract didn’t last and the facility again sits empty. GEO is paying capital costs and a skeleton crew for no reason.
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- Showdown Looms Over Private Prisons (prisonmovement.wordpress.com)