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Prison expansion is a bad option for Minnesota

Private prisons are a major public policy mistake. This is true regardless of whether they are privately operated or, as is being proposed by the Minnesota Legislature, they are leased and run by the state

Contrary to what their supporters say, private prisons are not less expensive and better than public facilities. Instead, their track record on cost, rehabilitation and safety is generally inferior to that of public facilities. And — especially pertinent to the current proposal — their use as a way to expand prison capacity has been to facilitate a war on drugs and petty crimes that has been racially discriminatory. 

schultz portrait
David Schultz

The debate to reopen the private prison in Appleton, Minnesota, is reminiscent of one that took place 18 years ago. In 1998 Minnesota was building a new correctional facility in Rush City. State Sen. Randy Kelly pushed hard for it to be privatized. I was part of a team of impartial national experts at the Institute of Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School hired by the state to research what we then knew about the performance of private prisons across the country. We looked at cost, recidivism, rehabilitation, safety and legal issues. We examined all of the studies that then had been done on private prisons, we did extensive interviews across the country, and we toured public and private prisons. The final 1999 report, “Privatization of Correctional Services: Evaluating the Role of Private Prison Management in Minnesota,” was sharply critical of the claims made by its advocates.

Initially there is a significant ethical and moral question regarding whether the punishment of crimes should be done on a for-profit basis. This is human exploitation at its worst. One can also argue that the use of punishment and force by private individuals against another is inherently a governmental function and not something that should be privatized. Our report raised these questions, but it went beyond the normative considerations to the empirical: What was the actual track record of private prisons?

Examining private prison claims

First, we found that many of the claims of cost savings were suspect. The standard measure of cost for prisons – per diem costs per inmate – did not always stand up. Yes in some cases private prisons were less expensive per diem, but not always. For example, in Oklahoma, where publicly operated prisons had to compete with private operators for contracts to run individual facilities, the public institutions came out less expensive about half the time. Cost was a wash. But even here the numbers failed to reveal hidden costs. In most of the contracts awarded to private prisons, the state was still on the hook for many medical expenses and it would be required to take back control of the prisons as a result of default or to deploy security in the event of riots. Public dollars subsidized private prisons to make them profitable and look as though they were cheaper than the public facilities. Additionally, by the time one added in the public dollars to oversee and regulate the private prisons the savings to the taxpayer disappeared.

We also found that there were costs associated with the savings. The areas where private prisons saved money was, first, in salary and skill level for corrections officers. Public facilities were generally well-paid union jobs that demanded a minimum skill level. Prison privatization across the country often was a union-busting activity that hired less skilled officers at much lower wages. Second, private prisons scrimped on educational and rehabilitation services. Third, they scrimped on everything else, leading, in the case of Oklahoma, to contracts than ran a hundred pages or more so as to require private operators to provide a range of services of sufficient quality that they tried to avoid in order to maximize profits.

More safety issues, higher recidivism

What did all this mean? In general, private prisons have more safety problems than public facilities. There was more prisoner or innate-to-inmate violence and more civil-rights violations in private as opposed to public facilities. There was less emphasis on rehabilitation and higher recidivism rates in private prisons. Part of all this is a consequence of trying to save money by not providing services. But something else was also going on. No warden in a public prison wants repeat business. On the other hand, private prisons have a financial interest in recidivism. The interests of the state and private prison operators is contradictory.

Finally, there is also one other major problem we found then with private prisons: The employees are not public and therefore they can go on strike. Public prisons operated by the government employing public employees can prevent strikes by preventing the employees by state law from striking. Private prisons and their labor relations are governed by federal law, pre-empting any state laws that would bar strikes. The potential of a strike or other labor problems raises many questions about safety.

In the 17 years since the Minnesota report was issued I have continued to research and teach about private prisons. For six of those years I also taught criminal justice courses. Subsequent reports and studies largely reconfirmed the conclusions found in the 1999 report.

How lessons of 17 years apply to the current proposal

One might argue that the objections raised against private prisons do not apply to the current proposal in Minnesota, which is for the state to reopen the Appleton facility and staff it with state employees. Fair enough, but the last 17 years have revealed some lessons we could not have seen back in 1999 and which do clearly apply here. The rise of private prisons occurred alongside the war on drugs, the broken windows theory of crime (arrest for the petty stuff before it escalates), mandatory minimum sentences, and three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws.

Nationally the expansion of private prison space exacted a racially discriminatory war against people of color. In Minnesota, prison expansion led to an explosion in a prison population that has the worst racial disparities in the nation. Private prisons have become what Nina Moore argues in “The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice” — a linchpin in creating a separate criminal justice system for people of color that is separate and unequal. The private prison industrial complex is central to all the problems that Black Lives Matters rightly protests.

We have spent enormous sums of money since the 1980s incarcerating people instead of investing in them. Imagine had we invested in addressing racial disparities in schools, economic development in concentrated poverty neighborhoods, or civil rights enforcement to bar racial discrimination in employment and housing. We would not have needed to build more prisons.

If Minnesota truly wishes to address the concerns of Black Lives Matters it would not add more prison space that simply enables the currently discriminatory practices that extend beyond criminal justice to many other institutions in our society.

In sum, the lessons of prison privatization or expansion of any kind is that they are bad options for Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton is correct in vetoing any bill that would allow this to happen.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 03/30/2016 - 09:33 am.

    Mr, Schultz

    You claim we have spent enormous sums of money incarcerating folks of color since the 80’s and claim we didn’t spend it on education, housing and civil rights. Have you ever heard of the “War on Poverty” we waged in 1965 and the 20 Trillion we’ve spent on it? Disregard the fact that the “war” didn’t work, we have spent trillions on the very issues you claim we have turned our backs on. Children in MSP and SPPS are getting over $20,000 per student per year, while many outstate students are getting half that amount, definitely not a money issue. Low income subsidized housing gets billions of dollars a year, the fact that HUD has become corrupted and not doing their job, has nothing to do with the money poured into it. There are too many civil rights groups living off the tax payers dollars to mention.

    You would have more credibility if you looked into why with Trillions spent, we the tax payer, is not getting any bang for our bucks. Why are schools failing our children of color with double the money spent? How is HUD being so inefficient? Hint, look into the private/public sharing of money, special interest groups, community organizers and all the other groups/individuals doing well as HUD fails to deliver. Grousing about money is always the easy route, looking into why the money we already spend is not working takes some admitting that status quo is not working and calls for answers. Much easier to claim we have not done enough to help folks of color than admit failure and come up with solutions.

    No doubt there are problems, more money is not the solution. That is why regular folks are so fed up with the system and you have Trump and Bernie getting so much support. Anybody who challenges the current system, is an outsider and calls like it is, gets traction. Saying we haven’t done enough while spending Trillions falls on deaf ears after 50 years of repeating the same worn out thing.

  2. Submitted by Tim Milner on 03/30/2016 - 10:12 am.

    Need some help understanding

    “facilitate a war on drugs and petty crimes that has been racially discriminatory”

    I have been seeing statements like this a lot lately – last week it was school suspension – stating that policies and practices are racially discriminatory.

    To me, people who commit a crime (or in the case of schools, take an action) should be treated the same no matter what their race is. So to be racially discriminatory, we would need situations where people of different races committed the same crime/take same action, yet one race was treated differently than the other. Or is my definition faulty?

    So as a contrived example:

    1 – if a purple boy and a green boy were caught smoking pot in the bathroom for the first time I would expect (and quite frankly demand) that both boys be treated exactly the same way. If not, that to me would be racial discrimination.

    2 – If the purple boy was caught for the 8th time, and the green boy for the 1st time, I would not expect the boys to be treated the same – I would expect the 8th time offended to have a more severe punishment than the 1st time offender. To me, that difference would not be racially discriminatory. Further, I would expect the green boy to receive the same 1st time punishment the purple boy got.

    3 – If 1 purple boy and 6 green boys were caught, I would expect all 7 boys to be treated the same. A report that stated more green boys were caught/punished than purple boys would not be racially discriminatory to me.

    So, when Mr Schultz makes his statement, he is referring to only to scenario #1 in my contrived example correct? Not scenario #2 or #3.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/30/2016 - 11:27 am.

    Private prisons don’t work, but why focus on them alone?

    Minnesota has an extreme shortage of prison beds, which is causing overcrowding and prisoners being housed in county jails, not designed for long-term confinement. Just as with the Minnesota State Security Prison, an issue that has been ignored for years, by doing nothing, the state abdicates its responsibility.

    There is one private prison in Appleton – at least in name only, because it has been closed for several years due to limited market demand across the country. The governor and corrections commissioner stated ts opposition to even leasing the Appleton prison, but the government said “someday” the state might the prison. The idea of lease is dead on arrival, and will just be a way for Republicans to argue they are more interested in rural Minnesota than the DFL, even if nothing happens.. The governor, by exploring a purchase, can take the initiative to doing something tangible to advance the One Minnesota strategy.

    Well, the time for a purchase is ideal. While valued at $100 million, there is no evidence that anyone wants to lease space for prisoners there. That was an experiment that failed and given the trend toward reducing prisoner census, it is unlikely ever to open again as a private prison. As it is a worthless asset that costs the company to maintain, the state should be investigating a purchase now – perhaps somewhere in the $25 to $50 million range. Once purchased, the state’s private prison is gone, clearly indicating the failure of privatized prisons n Minnesota.

    Here are some of the benefits. Hiring of higher wage public employees in a rural part of the state with limited job opportunities. Once the prison is ready to open, an immediate solution to the overcrowding. As all of that prison is not needed, if you want to remodel Minnesota’s aging prisons, you can close down units and move them around the state. Ability to have a greater range of security – low to high. Providing a prison in a rural community provides better access for rural Minnesotans in NW, WC and SW Minnesota to their imprisoned families. Family contact is known to improve prisoner motivation to turn their lives around.

    From some parts of the state, a 500 mile round trip including driving through the entire metro area to get to St. Paul, very unfair when compared the short travel distance for metro residents. Also rural family members who want to move closer to their prisoner don’t have to move out of rural Minnesota into a metro area where they don’t feel at home and is more expensive.

    Scholarship and research is important, but when the facts are in, it is time to act. One should acknowledge that minority communities have complaints about the justice system, but that prisons are not the reason, but the outcome. Bias among the general public, the police and the court system results in more minorities being stopped, charged, tried and given longer sentence. Prison is where they can redeem themselves by preparing for life post prison and not getting their sentences lengthened for problems during the term, often resulting from limited services connected with overcrowding.

    Putting aside whether or not people should be there – something decided elsewhere, prisons can and should be the first step in rehabilitation – but only if care is taken. Locking people up is expensive and too often results in learning how to be a career prisoner from fellow inmates.

    The one objection that is reasonable is that metro prisoners might be housed at a distant rural facility, although obviously the people complaining don’t care about the status quo, which means rural prisoners being in Stillwater, distant from their family members. Consider a Native American prisoner from Red Lake. Don’t their lives matter just as much as Africa American prisoners. Are
    we just going to operate base on the squeaky wheel principle. With prisons located not just in the eastern half of the state, we solve access and overcrowding situations at once.

  4. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 04/01/2016 - 10:00 am.

    Prisons for profit,,,aah the marketplace in humans again?

    There is a mighty close relationship between private prisons and slavery as we once supported. Black or white this time; a marketplace of bodies as commodities; prison-for-profit…and here we go again?

    Men in blue, local cops can almost pick their quota off the street I suppose… and no complaints from the townspeople because that’s their breadbasket, the private prison as local enterprise and jobs don’t you know?

    Saw a private village prison some time ago in a small town, in
    Tennessee….actually, the men and boys herded back ‘home’ after working ; a chain gang and as they filtered back into a long granary type steel building, windowless in over 100 degree heat in August it was a sad sight to behold.

    Asked the guard who said all the ‘inmates were essentially in on unpaid parking tickets;DWI. “Just cleaning up the place. New crop every morning” he said with a wink..

    As the prisoners filtered into the hot metal building they were also guarded by one ugly, big dog; a mastiff maybe but the fellows all petted him as they shuffled in…the dog, not the guard.

    It could happen here when prison privatization becomes a popular way to make jobs…and consider too, Trump would certainly endorse it ?

    Backwards, way to go again folks…down those dirty old paths we once supported without due process… just may not pass the human rights code either this time? Justice goes out the window when Bottom-line primal feed I suppose?

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