What happens if you privatize prisons is that you have a large industry with a vested interest in building ever-more prisons.” — Molly Ivins, 2003
For the past three years, the small West Texas town of Littlefield has had to come up with $65,000 a month to service a loan on an empty prison it never needed. To avoid defaulting on its prison loan, Littlefield has laid off workers, cut every department's budget, raised property taxes, increased fees, raided its municipal sewer and water fund, and even delayed its purchase of a new police car.
With just 6,507 residents during the 2000 census, Littlefield did not need a new prison. The city's elected officials decided to build one anyways. Littlefield issued $10 million in revenue bonds for construction of a 310-bed for-profit detention center as part of the city's economic development strategy in 1999. Revenue bonds are a special type of municipal bond that do not require voter approval, because they are backed by the expected revenue a project will generate. Littlefield's politicians built the prison believing it would pay for itself, pump money into the local economy, and expand job opportunity.
The nonprofit organization Cuéntame produced the excellent video below about the experience of Littlefield, Texas with speculative for-profit prison construction. Take a look:
As a result of this experience, Littlefield's bond rating was downgraded to junk status, and Littlefield taxpayers were saddled with millions in debt after discovery of mismanagement by for-profit prison operator Geo Group led the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC) to terminate its contract and remove its prisoners in 2009. When IDOC cancelled its contract, Geo Group bailed on Littlefield by terminating its contract and laying off 74 workers.
The Idaho Department of Corrections discovered Geo Group's mismanagement when it conducted an audit of the Littlefield lock-up. The audit was prompted by the suicide of Randall McCullough, one of Idaho's inmates, at the prison. McCullough had been placed in solitary confinement for more than a year as administrative punishment for a fight that was never criminally prosecuted. The IDOC audit revealed that Geo Group chronically understaffed its facility. On the night that McCullough died, the facility was so short on staff that the warden worked the midnight shift.
Of course, extreme right-wing organizations like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council defend privatization of prisons, schools and social services by peddling sanctimonious twaddle about the “innovation,” “competition” and “efficiency” associated with private entrepreneurship. The most common way for corporations like Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America to save money in running a prison is to cut guards' salaries, though (innovative!).
It turns out that when prison guards are paid wages as low as grocery store cashiers and fast food workers, they don't stick around very long. And when prisons are understaffed or have high turnover, they end up with inexperienced staff, higher rates of prisoner-on-guard assaults, more escapes, and more contraband violations as evidenced by higher rates of positive urine tests for drug use. Or, they might just be plain understaffed, à la Geo Group.
I would continue from here, but Molly does it better:
“The right says that, in the private sector, pay and performance are related. I look at the CEOs of American corporations, and if there's a connection between pay and performance there, I missed it.
What you get when you privatize and outsource is something like the Department of Defense and the military-industrial complex. We spend $399 billion a year on defense, and if you think that money is well spent because much of it gets run through defense contractors, you have not been paying attention.
DOD is the happy home of the $700 hammer, the endless cost overrun, and the revolving door, with accompanying conflicts of interest and dubious contracts. It's a fiscal nightmare. The Pentagon once had to announce that it couldn't account for $17 billion.
You get nightmare public policy consequences, as well. What happens if you privatize prisons is that you have a large industry with a vested interest in building ever-more prisons. The result is even more idiocy, like the three-strikes law and long terms for small-time drug possession.”
–Molly Ivins, 2003 Syndicated Column
The video in this post was produced by Cuéntame. Cuéntame is an online platform where the Latino community and the public at large can address social, political and cultural topics through social media, videos, interviews, and docu-series. Cuéntame translates “count me” or “tell me your story,” and Cuéntame facilitates conversations about everything from soccer and music to immigrant detention and the anti-immmigrant legislation crafted by extreme right-wing, corporate-funded organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council. Find out more about Cuéntame or tell your own story by following Cuéntame on Facebook or Twitter.