Is Michigan Locked into Higher Prison Costs?

LANSING —Those who have long argued that Michigan’s high costs of incarceration can be lowered through privatization will soon get their wish. Last year, the legislature approved an Engler administration plan to put a private company in charge of operating the state’s first "punk prison" for juveniles once the facility is built.

Meanwhile, privately run prisons are operating in eighteen states. (Counties in many states also contract with private firms to run jails.) According to USA Today, the number of beds in private prisons nationwide has grown from 2,620 in 1986 to 74,003 today. That’s still a small portion of the total 1.6 million prison population in the U.S.

Companies can operate correctional facilities for 10% to 15% less than government, says Charles Thomas of the Prison Privatization Project at the University of Florida. Other experts say the savings can be much higher.

Michigan might benefit from the experiences of the states which privatized first. Not only do those experiences tell us how to save money, they also suggest ways to tighten up the language of contracts so that certain problems that have arisen can be avoided.

State Senator Philip Hoffman in late December requested an audit by the Department of Corrections to determine if privatizing at least the operation of the prison food warehouse system might generate efficiencies for the state.