The Truth about Private Prison Contracts
The state of Vermont— Mecca of hemp-wearing, Subaru-driving, Co-op-loving, Frisbee revolutionaries—is paradoxically gaining attention for its leading role in supporting the private, for-profit corrections industry.
WWBJD? (What would Ben & Jerry do?)
Behind only New Mexico, Hawaii, and Montana, the state of Vermont now houses the largest proportion of its inmates—28 percent—in prisons owned and operated by for-profit corrections firms. Vermont, in fact, recently renewed its two-year, $24.9 million contract with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison owner and operator. According to the terms of the agreement, CCA will house nearly 600 of Vermont’s youngest and healthiest inmates in Kentucky and Arizona-based facilities from July 2011 to July 2013.
Since 1998, Vermont’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has justified its partnership with CCA by appeals to efficiency. But are CCA-operated facilities really more cost-effective than state-run prisons?
The answer may surprise you.
Despite Vermont’s steady-to-declining crime-rate, incarceration in the Green Mountain state has increased by 270 percent since 1990. And the state’s DOC budget has grown by almost 400 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the same period. Burgeoning expenditures and inmate populations alike are attributable to changes in state and federal sentencing guidelines. According to the Vermont DOC, “both the length of sentence and the number of persons sentenced have increased” since the early 1990s by virtue of the expansion of state DWI laws (1991), the introduction of a federal “three strikes” law (1995), and the enlargement of “listed crimes” (1999).
In addition, the volume of offenders diagnosed with a mental illness in Vermont has increased two-fold since 1992. In a recent study by the DOC’s mental health provider, “566 inmates, or 34% of all inmates housed in Vermont prisons were identified as having clinical diagnoses of mental illness.” This figure alone accounts for a substantial bump in corrections outlays, as a recent study emerging from Connecticut demonstrates that state departments of corrections can expect to spend 100% more caring for those diagnosed with a mental illness than for general population inmates.
According to 2007-estimates, Vermont spends $21,199/year on inmates housed in CCA facilities and $45,199 for those incarcerated in the state. If an annual savings of nearly $23,000/year sounds too good to be true, then that’s because it is.
The state of Vermont openly admits that CCA’s criteria for accepting inmates for housing are subject to a number of problematic imitations. They write that “the CCA facilities do not accept seriously physically or mentally ill offenders, or offenders whose behavior is exceptionally disruptive or who cannot conform to rules [and] in many of CCA facilities, the classification system is influenced by host state departments of correction, and has increased levels of criteria for exclusion.”
Whereas publicly chartered DOCs are responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of every type of prisoner, CCA simply circumvents such obligations by requiring the states with which it contracts to retain the least compliant, and, therefore, the most financially burdensome,individuals. Private prison firms essentially shift such risk back to state DOCs and taxpayers.
According to the National Commission of Correctional Health Care, a national-non-profit organization responsible for establishing industry benchmarks for the management of the correctional health services system, provisioning adequate mental health care is a standard that all departments of corrections must meet. Further, departments of corrections are obligated under the Eighth Amendment to provide prisoners with adequate medical care.
So just how efficient or effectual is a privatized system of corrections that willfully omits inmates for whom medical care—especially mental health care—will be most costly? Effectively requiring state departments of corrections to provide reasonable mental health care to vulnerable populations represents a significant externality that CCA regularly refuses to absorb.
Every concept of efficiency depends on a very particular presumption about causes, effects, and modes and scales of comparison. Likewise, every argument of efficiency can only select and index a small subset of the boundless present and future costs and benefits resulting from any act, policy, or condition. As writes economist Richard Wolff, “efficiency measures are thus inescapably as variable, idiosyncratic, and incommensurable as the different presumptions and selections underlying them (to which they are relative). Yet they persist as ideological bludgeons used by adversaries attempting to suppress their opponents by claims that one economic process is more or most efficient absolutely.”
Not only is contractually pre-selecting inmates worthy of mental health care services in privatized facilities morally opprobrious, but it’s a tacit admission that arguments of efficiency advanced by the for-profit corrections industry fail to account for externalities assumed by the public. The public must be aware that any attempt to draw equal linkages between unequal circumstances represents a logical fallacy. And the governing ideology of private prison firms gains traction in precisely in this way.
Vermont has a right to demand better. So too do the remaining twenty-nine U.S. states that contract with private prison companies each year.