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October 24, 2009

"Arizona May Put State Prisons in Private Hands"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting New York Times article.  Here is how it starts:

One of the newest residents on Arizona’s death row, a convicted serial killer named Dale Hausner, poked his head up from his television to look at several visitors strolling by, each of whom wore face masks and vests to protect against the sharp homemade objects that often are propelled from the cells of the condemned.

It is a dangerous place to patrol, and Arizona spends $4.7 million each year to house inmates like Mr. Hausner in a super-maximum-security prison.  But in a first in the criminal justice world, the state’s death row inmates could become the responsibility of a private company.

State officials will soon seek bids from private companies for 9 of the state’s 10 prison complexes that house roughly 40,000 inmates, including the 127 here on death row.  It is the first effort by a state to put its entire prison system under private control.

The privatization effort, both in its breadth and its financial goals, demonstrates what states around the country — broke, desperate and often overburdened with prisoners and their associated costs — are willing to do to balance the books.  Arizona officials hope the effort will put a $100 million dent in the state’s roughly $2 billion budget shortfall.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said State Representative Andy Biggs, a Republican who supports private prisons.  “If we were not in this economic environment, I don’t think we’d be talking about this with the same sense of urgency.”

Private prison companies generally build facilities for a state, then charge them per prisoner to run them.  But under the Arizona legislation, a vendor would pay $100 million up front to operate one or more prison complexes.  Assuming the company could operate the prisons more cheaply or efficiently than the state, any savings would be equally divided between the state and the private firm.

The privatization move has raised questions — including among some people who work for private prison companies — about the private sector’s ability to handle the state’s most hardened criminals.  While executions would still be performed by the state, officials said, the Department of Corrections would relinquish all other day-to-day operations to the private operator and pay a per-diem fee for each prisoner.

I wonder if years from now we will be debating whether there needs to be a public option for prison care.

October 24, 2009 at 01:12 PM | Permalink


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This is dumb. The fundamental problem is that prisons are a hotbed for lawsuits. In exchange for $100 million Arizona is transferring responsibility but not liability. Whatever money the state may save running the prisons they will pay out again in lawsuits.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 24, 2009 1:29:23 PM

The more fundmental issue than the one Daniel notes is that of society's responsibility for the actions its officials undertake in its name. If the people of Arizona or any other jurisdiction want to prosecute and incacerate people, they assume and undertake the burden of paying for the care and housing of the inmates. In flush times, it's easy to be a "tough-on-crime" politician. In hard times, politicians have to choose between prisons and education. Michigan, where I practice, has clearly chosen prisons, spending about 20% more on prisons than on its entire system of higher education, and has recently cut per-pupil state education spending for students in the K-12 grades by $292 per pupil per year.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Oct 26, 2009 4:48:05 PM

Arizona also publicly announced plans to sell government buildings and lease them back to save money. Arizona and the rest of the US is doomed if we don't spend more on education. Do these politicians have a brain to use? Greg Jones give one of the best reasons to not privatize prisons, those prisoners are the responsibility of the government that incarcerated them. Do we really want a company that expects to make money running prisoners, to "protect society" from prisoners? Create more companies that live off government handouts- That will solve our economic woes.

Posted by: Libertarianman | Oct 26, 2009 9:56:31 PM

i think it would be cheaper and easier to simply take the sharp objects tossed by the inmates and simply RETURN THEM into a painful place.

Posted by: rodsmith3510 | Oct 27, 2009 2:03:17 AM

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