Lowest bidder running prisons?

Privatization of government services has long been deeply embedded in Republican orthodoxy, along with trickle-down economics, tax breaks for the self-proclaimed “job creators,” and legislation that always seems to benefit certain campaign contributors. But late last month, an important victory was won for public sector workers when the Justice Department declared it would not be renewing contracts for private prisons after the Inspector General released a critical report that found the private prisons had higher rates of assaults and eight times the contraband as publicly run facilities.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo declaring that private prisons “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs. … They do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

The decision only affects the 22,000 inmates housed in 13 private prisons in the federal Bureau of Prisons system, but advocates praised the move as a signal to states, where the vast majority of inmates are incarcerated, that it’s time to reevaluate their own contracts with private facilities. The federal government spent $639 million on private prisons in 2014, a significant investment in a failing system.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told reporters, “This is a huge deal. It is historic and groundbreaking. For the last 35 years, the use of private prisons in this country has crept ever upward, and this is a startling and major reversal of that trend, and one that we hope will be followed by others.”

During the past few decades, Nevada has experimented with outsourcing prison operations. It didn’t end well. In 1997, hundreds of women were transferred from the state prison in Carson City to a newly built and fully privatized penitentiary in North Las Vegas, operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). By 2004, the experiment was over. Governor Kenny Guinn directed the state to take over the private prison citing major concerns about health care, security, facility deterioration and lax employment standards after an inmate became pregnant by a prison guard. CCA officials indicated they were ready to get out of the contract anyway because they couldn’t make sufficient profit.

Other correctional privatization efforts also failed in Nevada, including a medical care contract at the Ely prison and a spectacular fiasco at Summit View, the state’s highest-level juvenile detention center. Escapes from Summit View were legendary, as were inmate riots, sexual relations between staff and juveniles, physical abuse by guards, illegal drugs, gang activity, and overall lax operations. Staff were inexperienced, poorly trained and poorly paid. The private sector contractor also complained that there wasn’t enough money in the deal.

The idea of privatizing a core government service such as prisons was a deeply held Republican value, championed by Washoe Sen. Bill Raggio, who held sway over the prison budget as the chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Republican legislators praised the private sector’s cost-cutting measures, saying private companies could operate the prisons more cheaply and offer more programming at the same time. Democrats, led by former assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani opposed the idea, citing an underlying profit motive as a potentially corrupting element. They weren’t too happy about losing state employees either.

Despite the abject failure of the prison privatization scheme in Nevada, there are still periodic rumors floating around state government that Republican legislators are eyeing other ways to privatize core services such as the state mental health hospitals. But introducing a profit motive into a chronically underfunded system will most certainly fail. There aren’t enough private sector efficiencies to generate the profit corporations need to make it worth the trouble.

Ultimately, when government abdicates its responsibility to provide core services, it’s the citizens who really pay the price.