The Prison Boom: New Options for Michigan

A former state senator wasn't just kidding when he warned last December, "We are still moving with alarming speed toward the day when every Michigan adult is either incarcerated or working for the Department of Corrections."

The senator was drawing attention to the staggering growth in Michigan's prison population and the cost in manpower and resources expended to support it. The numbers are breathtaking: The Department of Corrections budget, at $1.2 billion, is nearly six times bigger than in 1980 and gobbles up 15 percent of the state's General Fund budget. Even though the state has built 30 new prisons and the system's 38,620 beds represent a tripling of capacity since 1980, department authorities believe they will be at least 1,200 beds short by the end of this year.

It costs Michigan taxpayers about $35,000 to house each prisoner. The average school district in the state educates seven children for that price. The same amount would put two or three students through a year of college.

Clearly, something has to give. The pace of corrections spending, by far the fastest growing component of state spending in the last decade, is both out of control and unsustainable. Legislators of both parties are expressing alarm at these trends and a willingness to consider almost anything that might help solve the problem.

Fundamentally, the state must act to reduce the flow of new inmates into the system. Few people want to go easier on violent criminals, but what about first-time, nonviolent offenders? Noting that "sentences in Michigan are the longest and harshest in the world," Attorney General Frank Kelley in 1993 called for shorter sentences. It is indeed a fact that the prisons are stuffed with people whose sole offense was possession or use of a small amount of illegal narcotics and may not have harmed even themselves, let alone another person. Sixty percent of the prison population is considered nonviolent.

More use of alternative sentencing, tethering, community service assignments, and other methods of correction can be part of the solution. So is maintaining indefinitely the practice of double bunking most inmates, approved as a temporary measure in 1991. Perhaps Michigan needs a soul-searching re-examination of its "victimless crime" laws. And it wouldn't hurt to have a serious discussion in our homes, churches, and schools about renewing respect for life, property, and the differences between right and wrong. These fundamental matters, furthermore, can be supplemented by aggressively pursuing an option that is a proven cost-cutter in at least 20 states-privatization of the design, operation, and management of prisons.

Five years ago, a Mackinac Center for Public Policy report urged the state to allow counties to privatize their jails. It was met with fierce opposition not from taxpayers, inmates, social workers, or economists, but from county sheriffs-who view jails as their personal turf. Likewise, the idea of privatizing state prisons may bring forth hostility from the state bureaucracy, but legislators and the public need to ask, "With a successful track record elsewhere, why shouldn't Michigan try it here?" Some services provided within Michigan state prisons are already at least partially privatized, such as certain health care, maintenance, food, and pharmaceutical services.

Experience in other states, where two dozen private companies are doing $250 million of business under contract with state governments, suggests that involving the private sector in the design of new facilities has produced substantial efficiencies. A privately-designed prison in Nashville, Tennessee, for instance, needs far fewer guards than the conventional facility because of its innovative "wheel-and-spoke" construction.

State-of-the-art management techniques now come largely from private sector firms, not government corrections bureaucracies. Observing privatized prisons in operation, a Texas official noted that ". . . you don't have the atmosphere of impending violence that you have in a state prison." That's because private firms, who must find ways to deter violence and manage prisoners effectively to earn a profit, are employing cutting-edge programs for everything from education and rehabilitation to feeding and housing the inmates they manage. Savings from private management of jails and prisons range from 15 to 35 percent off the cost of government-run facilities.

Governor Engler wants the state to spend another $200 million to continue Michigan's seemingly endless prison construction boom. We can approach that request with a business-as-usual attitude, spend the money, and come back for more when the new prisons are filled in a few years. Or we can put our thinking caps on and consider the alternatives-including privatization.