Saturday, September 17, 2011

The troubling impacts of prison privatization in rural America

As I anticipate our class viewing of Prison Town, USA, I am curious about whether the documentary addresses the issue of prison privatization--a topic I explored in my undergraduate thesis. Prison Town, USA explains that the United States experienced an unprecedented prison boom in the last several decades. This was especially true in rural areas where, during the 1990s, a prison opened every 15 days. It was also during this decade, that private prisons were growing at a rate four times faster than government-run prisons. After the attacks of September 11th, as concerns with homeland defense arose, prison privatization intensified, especially in association with immigration detention.

Prison privatization is a "buy now, pay later" phenomenon. A private prison is one managed by a non-government entity on behalf of the state. Companies, some publicly traded, have the opportunity to bid for the license to construct and sometimes operate the prison. Most often, the state reimburses the company over a period of several decades while also paying the company a per diem price for each prisoner housed.

In 1995, California had the greatest number of private prisons with 49 facilities, and Texas was second with 42 such prisons. The states with the largest proportions of their prisons privatized were Montana (62.5%), Wyoming (55.5%), California (53%), and Colorodo (52%). In Alaska, Arizona, and Louisiana, over 40% of the prisons are privatized.
New Mexico, was housing over 40% of its prisoners in private facilities by 2000.

In my study on prison privatization, I tried to determine why privatized prisons are growing popular in some states and not others. I tested a number of factors (race, political ideology, tax effort, incarceration rates, etc.) and ran various statistical tests. The results I found were not those I expected.

Among all of the multiple regressions I ran, urbanization was by far the strongest indicator of whether a state had privatized prisons. I used the U.S. Office of Management and Budget definition of urbanization, which assesses Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA). An MSA is defined as an area with a core urban population of 50,000 or more people.

Prison privatization was most likely in states with the least proportion of their population living in urban areas. My study suggests that prison privatization is pursued by state governments, however bad an idea it may be, as a means of stimulating local economies and creating jobs. Private prisons in rural areas house inmates from other parts of the state and often from out of state. This makes it a lot harder for inmates to stay in touch with their families. This isolation contributes to the probability of recidivism--evidence indicates that staying connected to family reduces the chances a prisoner will offend again.

In addition to the negative impacts on prisoners due to isolation, rural residents who have job opportunities at these sites also may be adversely impacted. Studies show that private prison employees, as opposed to public employees, are not unionized and receive worthless benefits packages. Thus, the economic benefits that do accrue to rural communities are short-term only.

Other negative impacts stemming from prison privatization include the effect on criminal policy. As prison privatization is viewed and pursued by rural areas as a way of replacing lost manufacturing jobs, prison construction may increase regardless of an actual necessity to house criminals. This, in turn, may give rise to punitive legislation and a surge in incarceration. Crime, ironically, becomes profitable for the state, and specifically for rural areas. States with extensive rural areas--without criminal populations large enough to support the growing industry of private prisons--may implement policies that lead to increases in incarceration rates. These include three strikes laws or mandatory minimum sentencing policies. Penal policy that is driven by economic gain, rather than the pursuit of justice, has troubling implications for the justice system.


KB said...
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Jason said...

I agree with many of the points made in the post but what about the positive effects of rural prisons. I'll admit my knowledge of the matter is limited, but it seems that a struggling rural economy would benefit from a large and dependable employer such as a prison. When the community's only source of employment has been the timber industry or mining for a decade suddenly dries up, what are the unemployed to do? Many lack any higher education or special training and many are also reluctant to move or enroll in school.

I acknowledge the possible negative effects the prison will have on the community but it may be a necessary evil that if otherwise not present would signal the death of the community.

Patricija said...

It seems my comment is simply a slew of questions sparked by your incredibly interesting post.

I'm still a bit confused about your statement that prison privatization is a "buy now, pay later" phenomenon. How private are they if they are then reimbursed by the state over a period of several decades while also paying the company a per diem price for each prisoner housed? If these prisons are getting state money why are they being run so differently?

Further, when a town is confronted with having a prison, do they understand the difference between the privatized prison and the state run prison? Or do they simply assume (as I would before reading your post) that it was state run with union jobs and all the other perks of a state run prison?

What are the benefits of private prisons (as opposed to public prisons)? Is it simply the cost delay opportunity (like a state credit card) and lower cost as associated by worse working conditions for their employees?

KB said...

On numerous trips through the Central Valley in California this year, I saw prison after prison in many of the nonmetropolitan areas I passed through. It always struck me as odd to see these facilities in the middle of farmland, especially since I imagined that most of the inmates were likely from other parts of the state.

It made me think of the “not in my backyard” attitude that many people have with nuclear and toxic waste and led me to think this attitude may be another reason why more prisons are in rural areas. Many people do not want the negative effects that having nuclear waste or prisons in their vicinity brings. Urban areas usually have a stronger voice in the debate of where waste or other unwanted things should go.

However, I can see why rural communities would not put up as much as a fuss since it is one way they may be able to survive economically. Still, as discussed in the post, the jobs provided by private prisons may have limited or short-term economic benefits. For society as a whole, it may be better to find other ways to solve rural America’s economic problems, as prisons in rural areas may create more repeat offenders.