Tuesday, December 26, 2006

House Corrections Committee looks to private prisons to boost capacity

I hope you enjoyed the holiday.

This morning I want to continue our tour through the work by standing Texas House committees in their interim reports related to criminal justice topics. Having examined the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee's report, as well as several aspects of the report from the House Law Enforcement Committee, now I'm going to tackle the much more extensive House Corrections Committee interim report (pdf) in several chunks over the next few days.

For starters, p. 10 of the 150-page report offers a summary of the total proposed new prison beds the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is requesting during the next biennial budget cycle:
Total new prison beds: 4,080
  • 1 unit at 2,250 beds plus 500 Administrative Segregation beds
  • 1 unit at 1,330 beds
Additional new treatment beds:
  • 1,000 new private beds (including 500 DWI beds) - vendor built
  • 250 new Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility (SAFPF) beds - vendor built
  • 200 new In-Prison Therapeutic Community (IPTC) beds - these beds are available in existing units so only treatment money is needed.
Private prisons appear to be the sole providers suggested by the committee for new "treatment beds." The report stated, "The state of Texas currently has contracts with private operators to maintain 15,505 secure prison beds, approximately 10% of the state's prison capacity. The facilities are run by Corrections Corporation of America, Geo Groups, and Management Training Corporation. ... When capacity needs arise the Texas Board of Criminal Justice contracts with county jails and private facilities at a cost of $40 and $30 per day respectively."

I was disappointed to see the Committee report suggest Texas should perhaps rely exclusively on private prisons for short-term capacity expansion. In the Recommendations to the first charge, the report queries, "if the state must contract with private companies and county jails to alleviate overcrowding, why limit the number of private beds the state can contract with when the private beds cost less money and provide more treatment?"

Good question. The man reason private facilities are cheaper is because they cherrypick low-level offenders. (Forget for a moment that another reason some are cheaper is that they're not spending as much on security.) And they "provide more treatment" primarily because the Texas Legislature slashed in-prison treatment funding over the last several years. That's not an invevitability, just the current state of affairs in a mismanaged prison system.

More to the point, the Committee's proposal ignores the long-term economic implications of such a decision. Indeed, private prisons undoubtedly are cheaper in the short run, in the same sense that it's cheaper in the short run to rent a house than to buy one. The main difference is that twenty years down the line you're still paying rent, when if you had purchased the home, or in this case the prison, the marginal annual cost declines dramatically in the long run.

That's why, while I don't mind the state renting beds to manage short-term capacity crises, I don't think it's a good idea at all to lease private prison space as a long-term strategy. It's an economic disservice to the taxpayers who will continue to pay for short-sighted decisions long after the politicians making them have left the public eye.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No Way!!! Private prisons are not the way to go. There are some private prisons in Texas and the Inmates are more mistreated there than in the State and ACA run facilities.

Whoever is proposing this should have to spend at least 3 months in a private run prison. The State can not pay guards and workers enough now to retain them, how in the world do they think they can pay private prison workers enough to stay? Everyone who has worked contract work, knows they get paid far less than the company run personal. Forget this idea.