Idaho’s decadelong experiment with prison privatization has failed, so Gov. Butch Otter had little choice when he reluctantly pulled the plug last week.
The promise of incarceration at a lower cost was never fulfilled, and the 2,080-bed facility south of Boise became mired in controversies over inmate violence, lax oversight and possible fraud.
Before the state even took the plunge, a 2001 U.S. Justice Department survey of privatization across the country concluded, “The promises of 20 percent savings in operational costs have simply not materialized.”
Sure enough, a 2012 Associated Press investigation showed the state could meet or beat the contractual cost of running the prison. Otter grudgingly reached the same conclusion last week, saying the Department of Corrections could run it “very, very close” to the $29 million Corrections Corp. of America was being paid annually.
Scandal-plagued CCA, based in Nashville, Tenn., had already said it wouldn’t bid on the next contract, which signaled the beginning of the end for privatization. The current contract ends June 30, at which time the state Department of Corrections will take control of the facility.
CCA’s 10-year run has been dogged by controversy, with its facility being dubbed “gladiator school.” A number of lawsuits have alleged that inmate-on-inmate violence was allowed and encouraged. The Associated Press released a damning video of an inmate brutally assaulting another for several minutes while guards failed to intervene. The victim was in a coma for three days, and suffered permanent damage.
AP also unearthed documents showing that the Department of Corrections was aware that CCA was understaffing the facility in violation of the state contract. The prison management company also admitted to filing records that suggested vacant positions were filled, and DOC said it never checked paperwork against real staffing levels.
Privatization always raises transparency and accountability concerns, and Idaho’s prison experiment failed on both counts. CCA fought the release of the surveillance video. When a warden was removed, the company refused to give a reason.
Privatization of certain government services can work to keep costs down, but the urge to make a profit on incarceration has produced unacceptable results in Idaho and elsewhere.
In some states, private prison operators are demanding cells be kept full, or nearly so, in order to fatten their revenues.
The prison privatization boom followed an onslaught of tough-on-crime sentencing statutes adopted in the 1980s and 1990s. Now the trend is toward lowering prison populations and the burden on taxpayers. Otter himself announced last summer the acceptance of grants to pursue alternatives to prison.
So while the governor is disappointed that privatization didn’t work, he should view this as an opportunity to seek smarter justice.