Reelection politics drives prison privatization opposition
As the issue has been brought to the wider consciousness of policy-making in Louisiana, it’s ironic that, for the second straight year, the chances of reducing state government spending in corrections through privatization seems to be dwindling under charges that contracting out corrections would be detrimental, when Louisiana already is by far the state that contracts out corrections the most.
As measures that would contract out prison operations, if not sell them outright, have faced stiff resistance although on spurious terms, ignored in the background has been the fact that, besides the two prisons already privatized two decades ago, between now and then Louisiana has gone in whole hog on contracting out its corrections operations. At the end of 2011, only 47.45 percent of all individuals under state incarceration were housed in state prisons. The only difference between an expansion of private sector corrections in the state and the current common practice is the state contracts on a short-term basis with local governments.
But this still is contracting, where not only do parish sheriffs running the facilities who accept state prisoners (almost always rural sheriffs, as the urban ones’ facilities typically don’t have enough room for their own miscreants) feel pressure to get as many transfers in while spending as little as possible on them to make a “profit” off the state’s $24.39 daily reimbursement, some go in for subcontracting – they house whatever prisoners they have plus ones from the state in facilities run and even owned by the private sector. There’s no conceptual difference between this and contracting with the private sector.
In fact, as far as the state goes, it actually pays in its contracts several dollars a day more to private operators than to parish government operators. This is because legally in state prisons work and/or education opportunities must be provided by contractors, which does not have to be the case for parish prisons, which in addition, unlike state prisons, house charged but not convicted individuals who cannot be required to work or train. The extra expense in providing these kinds of programs is what makes the state contracting to parishes the cheapest option.
So when opponents bring up presumed issues about the perils of contracting to the private sector, they are hypocrites on two levels – in that if this is so bad, why not stop the current contracting by the state to two private providers, and also why not stop the contracting of a plurality of state prisoners out to sheriffs? If the profit motive is so evil when it comes to corrections and causes so many assumed problems, why do none of the opponents advocate getting rid of all contracting?
Of course, it’s not only because criticisms of this nature have no merit, it’s also the politics involved. Perhaps the most vocal opponents of the privatization plan withering away this legislative session, the contracting out of Avoyelles Correctional Center’s operations, is state Rep. Robert Johnson, whose district essentially is Avoyelles Parish where the facility is located. But it’s also got a substantial parish prison whose inmate roster of over 1,300 indicates it takes state prisoners. Not once has Johnson, who has called into question the safety and quality of privatization state prisons, called for stopping the practice of shipping state prisoners to the Avoyelles Parish Jail that, like those state prisons, operates on a profit motive, illuminating his hypocrisy on the issue.
He acts that way because, like many legislators, they remain too interested in the political aspects of the issue, which in this instance boils down to jobs. Corrections in their parishes become job creators within their districts for which they can take credit, but certainly for which they would get blamed if these disappeared, with discontent whipped up by sheriffs who lose the revenue that allows them to capture more resources and to hire more people, which then aids them in their own elections.
Thus it gets quite simple on the privatization/contracting issue: prick an opponent, and you’ll find they bleed support of the idea that it is more imperative for government to directly employ people than to offer taxpayers relief and the citizens more efficient service provision. And the final irony is that the issue of what to do and the most efficiently with state prisoners looks to become less important in the coming years, as legal changes supported by the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration (which opponents ironically claim, without a shred of proof, wants privatization for nefarious crony capitalism reasons) look to reduce the state prison population and additionally demographic changes also suggest a declining prison population in general.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 10:05