The Longest Yard

Prison guards defeat taxpayers in privatization battle

Michigan Information & Research Service News reports that in a legislative battle pitting taxpayers against the prison guards union, the guards have won: There will be no prison privatization in next year’s state budget. This eliminates for now an opportunity to realize hundreds of millions of dollars in savings over the next several years by increasing the incentives of the non-privatized prisons to “sharpen their pencils” and operate more efficiently.

Not surprisingly, the union pulled out all the stops in convincing enough Republicans to deep-six a prison privatization plan that had already passed the state Senate. Among the ploys was to demonize the process, characterized by a union lobbyist speaking to MIRS as, “You cut corners.  You lay off staff. That makes it more dangerous for everybody ... It's a danger for employees on the inside and dangerous for the prisoner.”

There is little in the way of clear-cut empirical, scholarly evidence to support such a claim (at best the evidence is inconclusive). Proponents and opponents of privatization have largely done battle over this topic by exchanging anecdotes. Both public and privately managed prisons have had riots, attacks on employees and prisoner escape attempts.

The truth is, prison privatization can be done poorly or well. Doing it well requires contracts that contain strong performance accountability measures which are carefully monitored. If the state can’t be trusted to draft and enforce a solid performance-based contract, why should anyone trust it to run an entire prison system well itself?

Also, the good news about private contractors is that if one disappoints, another can step into the breach. In contrast, when the state refuses to competitively contract, both taxpayers and prisoners are basically stuck with the same team, no matter how poor or mediocre its performance.

Speaking of anecdote vs. empirical data, for years New Mexico has kept more than 40 percent of its prisoners under private management. If these prisons were as unsafe as opponents insinuate, why has there been no big, public reversal?

Apparently, real life experience shows that the benefits of contracting really do outweigh the costs.