Populist hypocrisy should not stop prison privatization
Populism and hypocrisy can make for a potent mix, but it still may not be enough to derail efforts to improve Louisiana state government efficiency, as long as Gov. Bobby Jindal stays committed to achieving it.
Jindal and his legislative allies had to trim sail a bit on a measure that would allow for selling the Avoyelles Correctional Center that could have pumped $35 million into the Budget Stabilization Fund, but have retained the option for it to be operated by the private sector, as are Allen and Winn Correctional Centers presently, at an estimated $7 million a year. Unfortunately, legislators don’t get much political mileage out of telling the folks back home they stuffed away more money into a savings account for a rainy day, as compared to what small but intense constituencies can bring to oppose such items. It’s those special interests that want to scuttle the savings as well.
The leading loudmouth in this regard is state Rep. Robert Johnson, who has Avoyelles in his district. In floor debate on HB 850 that would set the stage for that facility’s private sector operation, Johnson said of private correctional facilities operators, “They're trying to make profits, they're not worried about safety,” and claimed staff turnover was almost nonexistent at Avoyelles, compared to high turnover at Winn, thereby arguing that as the profit motive encouraged lower wages, therefore higher turnover that resulted led to less safe conditions.
But this case to try to convince other legislators that privatization would lead to less security for both corrections workers and the public began to unravel anecdotally when state Rep. Jim Fannin noted that he had heard of no problems at Winn, in his district. And Fannin had plenty of hard evidence on which to draw had he known of it or cared to do so.
Generally, over two decades of social science research shows a number of studies concluding privately-run prisons do as good of a job in terms of quality as government-run ones at cost savings, while others show little difference monetarily and in quality, but almost none show privatized prisons actually do a worse job than state facilities. Salaries are lower (although not as low as Johnson’s reckless claim that they are half the $60,000 average paid to these workers in Louisiana – well above both the median family income in Louisiana and what many people with multiple college degrees earn) and turnover is higher (two to three times) in privatized prisons than in public ones.
And on the specifics of the safety matter, Johnson is a dunce. Just how unsafe are Louisiana state prisons to the public, public and private? In fiscal year 2009, by way of example, from them there was exactly one escape. All have accreditation from the American Correctional Association, part of which means meeting certain security standards. And, inexcusable for a policy-maker making public pronouncements, Johnson simply is stupidly ignorant about the turnover at Avoyelles already – 21 percent on an annual basis according to the latest data.
More to the point, if privatized prisons are such a threat to public safety, where are Johnson’s bills to remove Allen and Winn from that status? If he thinks this is such an impediment to the public good, why did he never bring up this issue until last year, when Jindal first began to stump for additional prison privatization? Only a hypocrite would claim in voice that to head in a certain direction represented inferior policy, but in behavior have allowed that to continue in other cases and only objecting when it seems his own personal interests are at stake rather than following principle.
That personal stake, of course, is reelection and continuing to pursue power and privilege. Fleecing unknowing taxpayer in order to overpay state workers in your district creates happy constituents of an elected official. It also satisfies the ideology of others, such as state Rep. Sam Jones, who in his opposition argued that in fact it was the taxpayers’ job to subsidize state workers beyond what the market values their positions in the name of economic development.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 15:35