Vol. 4 No. 3 (March, 1994) pp. 50-53
PRIVATIZING CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS by Gary W. Bowman, Simon Hakim and Paul Siedenstat (Editors), New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1993. 246 pp. Cloth $34.95.
Reviewed by Stefan J. Kapsch, Department of Political Science, Reed College, and former Executive Director, Oregon Prison Overcrowding Project.
PRIVATIZING CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS is a collection of 16 essays edited by three economists. The twenty authors include former Chief Justice Warren Burger (in a brief Forward), plus several academics (mostly in criminal justice programs), one reporter, several vendors and consultants, and three corrections professionals outside of the academy. In the end, this curious mix does not work well, seriously limiting the usefulness of the volume.
Privatization and corrections policy are both topics of immense importance, so much so that they are familiar to nearly everyone who is in any way attentive to public affairs in the eighties and the nineties. They are policy areas that deserve the most serious examination that can be brought to bear.
Privatization has been around for a long time in corrections in the form of contracting for services, particularly in parole, probation and community corrections for such services as job training, and drug and alcohol treatment. What is relatively new, and very important, are the ideas of private organizations building and/or managing correctional institutions themselves, especially prisons with high levels of security and custody, which house serious offenders over long terms. It takes both actual and potential use of force and violence to do this, since obviously few people agree to it voluntarily. Because of this, imprisonment per se as an exclusive state function has usually been considered proper because of the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force and violence, and the need for strict accountability in its use. Even then the familiar scandals involving misuse of force or substandard conditions demonstrate the difficulty of monitoring this kind of control when it occurs behind walls and out of plain view.
This book is neither an original contribution to the literature on privatization, nor is it a textbook or supplement for classroom use. It would be of greatest interest to policy-makers who need an overview of issues in privatization, but one which as a theme, pretty much accepts privatization as a goal and concentrates on overcoming the obstacles. In the introduction, for example, the editors form the basis for the essays in the rest of the book in terms of the "six stages" of privatization: (1) the decision whether to privatize, (2) establishment of goals, (3) organization of the system (4) analysis of the legal/liability issues (5) preparation of the RFP and (6) evaluation and control.(p. 3 ff) Note the absence here of "termination" as a potential part of the process, and the implicit acceptance of privatization, even though there are skeptical essays among those which follow.
The introductory essay fails to do what introductory essays ought to do -- encourage the reader to continue on. In fact, the concluding essay in the volume makes a much better introduction and would be a good place to start, skipping the true introduction altogether. In the introduction, the editors acknowledge the scope of the correctional policy crisis in familiar terms (something which is repeated in subsequent essays and becomes tedious). It also notes early on that not all efforts to privatize correctional institutions have been successful, but success and praise for privatization is the overwhelming theme of the introduction as well as the book in general, exceptions notwithstanding. Failure, the editors suggest, occurs when the principal reason for privatization seems to have been to stimulate employment and where financial arrangements were questionable. (p. 3) In other words, the explanation for failure is limited to situations when privatization occurred for the wrong reasons and when neither the governments involved nor the vendors knew what they were doing or how to do it; in the latter case (vendors) because they are small and inexperienced -- the general "infant industry" argument. The prognosis with the [new]
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"...well-established capital-endowed companies...." can be expected to be much better because of advantages such as greater experience, economies of scale. (p.3). Two things are immediately notable from this. One is that this is as much a how-to-do-it manual as anything, and it certainly not an "analysis" in any sense of that term. Thus, the presence of consultants and vendors among the authors is not surprising, nor is it necessarily out of place, at least not once one understands that this is a book that pretty much takes privatization for granted. To be sure, there are skeptics among the contributors, but that is not the theme; the skeptics seem to be there for balance as much as anything. Second is that all of this is readily apparent in the discussion in the introduction of each of the six stages . For example, the discussion of the "decision whether to privatize" is one short paragraph, and all of it is on how to calculate the costs (presumably so that one does not bid unrealistically). (p. 3). There is no mention of any of the objectives in making this decision, or of any other outcome one might expect from correctional institutions as a matter of "good government."
The section in the Introduction on "establishment of goals" is written in terms of making sure the RFP is properly framed, including a warning to avoid unnecessary "red tape." (p. 3-4). Ditto for other very brief comments on each of the other six. This is even further emphasized in a much longer section on "Cost Considerations in Construction and Operation of Detention Facilities" which runs over bonding vs. borrowing, construction costs, etc. but uncritically and not in any detail. (p. 5-8) What makes this section curious is that the editors obviously take the success of privatization either for granted, or on thin grounds. For example, the discussion of cost comparisons of public and private facilities is based on one published study of a single institution in Tennessee; and this from a staff report of the National Institute of Justice published during the Reagan/Bush years when NIJ's stature for objectivity slipped. (p. 7-8). Other cited comparative cost data is directly from the operator of a privately managed facility in Kentucky. (p.8) Ultimately, these conclusions may prove to be correct, but such a huge generalization on such a limited basis? Other essays in this volume cite the same study, but they are usually far more cautious about their conclusions. Similarly, the editors implicitly dismiss concerns of critics of privatization concluding that the apparent success of privatization "appears" to have been done "without cutting corners", but without citing any studies or evidence at all to support that massive generalization, not even another of the essays in the volume. (p. 8)
Deserving of special mention is a section in the Introduction on "Issues in Privatization," where the authors discuss the "myth" that private companies are restrained in the use of deadly force arguing that this is true only outside the institution; but then the escapees become the responsibility of the state. (p. 9) Inside the institution, private providers can use deadly force, but the essential questions about how and with what safeguards are not mentioned. They conclude with an absolutely astounding response to concerns about labor relations. (p.9) After blithely (and without citation) stating that "many private providers...hired the public employees, raised their pay and provided better fringe benefits...." they assert that should there nevertheless be an employee strike or other emergency." ..the state can send the National Guard to assist." (p. 9) It is difficult to adequately characterize the irresponsibility and lack of any real appreciation for the nature of prisons, or concern for the safety and well-being of the people who work and live there, in suggesting the use of military force as a solution to labor problems in the context of correctional institutions.
Nonetheless, the first of contributor essays (by Warren Cikens) appeals for consideration of privatization and shows proper caution not just for the mechanics of getting it done, but for the serious issues of principle and policy. The historical essays by Robert McCrie and Alex Durham are overly redundant but worthwhile. One would have been adequate and Durham's is, perhaps, more comprehensive. Dana Joel's essay on privatization of "secure adult prisons" is another general review of problems which curiously has
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nothing apparent to do with secure institutions, contrary to the essay's title.
Michael Janus is a warden and writes from that point of view. After the obligatory review of the importance of the subject at hand, Janus has a sophisticated and thoughtful series of sections starting with "The Importance of Symbolism in Criminal Justice" raising issues that should have been in the introduction, including the impact on corrections overall and on the criminal justice system, as well as the generation of a whole new set of potentially powerful lobbyists (the private vendors themselves) who can be expected to wield enormous political power and therefore shape public policy.
Barbara Auerbach's essay on the involvement of the federal government in prison industries is, indeed, on efforts by the federal government to assist prison industries and therefore hopefully achieve laudable goals such as job training, development of self esteem, support for families, etc. One of the major political debates in the field (including the public debate) is the inordinate influence those federal dollars have in shaping and controlling state policy, but these fundamental issues of federalism are not mentioned. It is no accident that the cynical joke "I'm from the federal government and I'm here to help you" has enjoyed sustained popularity for a long time. An essay follows on a specific example of prison industries, written by a vendor who not surprisingly starts out with the assertion that "The key ingredient in the future success of prison industries will be the involvement of the private sector and the use of business principles." (p.103). The essay reads much like what one would expect at an industry workshop presentation.
Another essay titled "The Public-Private Partnership: A Challenge and an Opportunity for Corrections" covers the same ground as many of the previous ones, causing one to wonder how many ways there are to summarize the basics of prison crowding, crisis and the need to do something. This essay adds that cooperation between government and private concerns would be a very good idea, and that the private vendors have contributed to the problems of mistrust of privatization by trying to supplant, rather than complement, what the government does.
An essay by a Corrections Corporation of America, Inc. legal officer on the liability issues in private management concludes by saying "It seems easy to say that liability for all parties can be minimized by a simple document." [i.e., a contract] (p. 136). Indeed, but that is basically what the essay covers. The following essay by Harold Sullivan on constitutional issues on prisoners' rights in privatization is well-done, worthwhile and less sanguine about privatization although that is not why it is well-done and worthwhile. It provides a comprehensive and balanced review of court decisions and issues, just what a volume like this needs.
Another vendor-authored article titled "Proving Privatization Works" provides plenty of argument and opinion, but no proof. Todd Mason (a journalist) writes about private jails anecdotally and very skeptically, appropriately warning communities to think carefully before they act. A comparison of two states' experience by the Urban Institute (Chapter 15) is based on a straightforward evaluation design and while it basically presents findings, there is a good deal of data presented and therefore an opportunity to dig deeper.
As a book primarily of interest to decision-makers, what should the busy public official do? The final essay by Charles Thomas and Charles Logan titled "The Development, Present Status, and Future Potential of Correctional Privatization in America" would be an excellent start. It does what it says it will do, does it well and since the first part is historical it eliminates (or greatly reduces) the need to read other essays in this volume. Janus' essay "Bars on the Iron Triangle;..." should also be read for its theoretical and political awareness, and perhaps the Todd Mason piece "For Profit Jails: A Risky Business" as a warning of the kind that the reader is unlikely to see elsewhere. The Sullivan essay on prisoners' rights is fine but the rest of the book should be
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assigned to a staff member to summarize in a couple of pages.