The stories appear in Raw Story and HuffPo. CCA, the nation's largest operator of for-profit prisons, sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for challenging corrections budgets. They are prepared to spend up to $250 million toward purchasing existing state prisons. They cite Ohio's decision to sell the Lake Erie Correctional Facility to CCA for $72.7 million in the summer of 2011 as an idealized example; Ohio officials argued that selling and outsourcing the prison will generate $3 million in cost savings each year. However, a report from Policy Matters Ohio calculated that selling the Lake Erie prison would actually cost more in the long term than if the state continued to own the property and pay off the construction bonds, because the state has to pay CCA a $3.8 million annual ownership fee for housing state prisoners in addition to the prisoner per-diem costs laid out in the contract. The report concludes that the prison sale would cost taxpayers $11 million more over the next 20 years than if the state would have continued to own the prison. So it sounds like a pig in a poke.
In CCA's letter to the 48 states, they spell out four criteria they want met:
• A minimum rated occupancy of 1,000 beds;
• A structure age of no more than 25 years;
• A designation that the structure is suitable for immediate occupation or is already occupied by an inmate population; and
• An assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.
The latter is of greatest concern because it would provide an incentive for a state to artificially inflate an inmate population. Incarceration decisions would no longer be driven exclusively by the offender's threat to person and property, but would also be driven by the need to maintain a designated inmate population. Thus a CCA prison would end up housing an increasing number of potheads, deadbeat dads, and hot sauce moms, none of which generally pose a threat to my person or property. While Alaska so far has resisted the temptation to create any privatized prisons, we do send some of our convicts out of state to the Hudson Correctional Facility, a private prison 25 miles northeast of Denver. Hudson is operated by GeoGroup.
But possible cost overruns at the new Goose Creek Correctional Center might make state officials amenable to an offer by CCA. In March 2011, some state lawmakers were thinking about mothballing the 1,536-bed facility even before it officially opened because they determined it could cost about $53 million a year to operate. In contrast, leaving the prisoners Outside would cost about $21 million a year, while simply mothballing the prison would cost about $20 million a year, including $17.8 million in debt service on construction costs. Nevertheless, Goose Creek might still be an attractive investment for CCA.
Private prisons have a rather checkered track record; when they are in danger of busting their budgets, they skimp on inmate care and supervision. After his federal conviction on bribery charges, former Alaska State Rep. Vic Kohring spent 10 months in 2007 housed at the Taft Correctional Center in California, then operated by the Utah-based Management & Training Corporation. Some of Kohring's observations, based upon an Anchorage Daily News story, were cross-posted at Voice Of Deseret:
"It seemed pretty apparent they were cutting -- they were trying to be ultra-efficient, cutting back as much as they could," Kohring said. "If things would break down, they'd stay broken down for a long time -- exercise equipment, telephones." Meals were loaded with carbohydrates, "too many processed foods, not enough fresh produce," he continued. "There was a lot of complaints that the food there wasn't up to par, at least not in comparison to, say, Sheridan."
Kohring also said that medical care was inadequate. "I witnessed some pretty bad injuries when I was in Taft there. Guys falling over, one guy broke his femur, another broke his hip, one guy was punched in the face and he had glass embedded in his eye and it took him about a day before they finally took him to the doctor, at Bakersfield, in the hospital. It was horrid."
His own pre-existing back and neck injury, from a car accident, got him neither sympathy nor care. "My back didn't get any kind of attention at all, other than ibuprofen. I was told by the director of medical to shut up ... They said no to everything." He was warned that if he kept complaining, he'd wind up cleaning the kitchen, he said.
CCA wouldn't make this offer to 48 states if they didn't think they could score some serious profits. Lawmakers need to make sure they get the whole story before swallowing CCA's line about "saving money", since Ohio may find out that they'll actually pay more in the long run.