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May 19, 2011

Might private prisons actually cost taxpayers more than public prisons?

The important question in the title of this post is prompted by this new piece in the New York Times, which is headlined "Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings."  Here is how the piece starts:

The conviction that private prisons save money helped drive more than 30 states to turn to them for housing inmates. But Arizona shows that popular wisdom might be wrong: Data there suggest that privately operated prisons can cost more to operate than state-run prisons — even though they often steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates.

The state’s experience has particular relevance now, as many politicians have promised to ease budget problems by trimming state agencies. Florida and Ohio are planning major shifts toward private prisons, and Arizona is expected to sign deals doubling its private-inmate population.

The measures would be a shot in the arm for an industry that has struggled, in some places, to fill prison beds as the number of inmates nationwide has leveled off. But hopes of big taxpayer benefits might end in disappointment, independent experts say. “There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” said Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.”

Such has been the case lately in Arizona. Despite a state law stipulating that private prisons must create “cost savings,” the state’s own data indicate that inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons.

Some recent related posts on private prison sale plans in Ohio and Florida:

May 19, 2011 at 10:55 AM | Permalink

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A similar example is private medical insurers versus Medicare. Ironically Medicare is far more efficient.

The truth is that the private prison operators knew from the start that they could not operate more efficiently than public prisons. That was just a selling point used by their lobbyists, and by the politicians to explain their votes to their constituents. Nobody really believed it. The lobbyists got their fees; the politicians got their donations; the prison corporations got their bills through. This truth has come out in at least two investigative pieces that I have seen.

Posted by: James | May 20, 2011 2:05:19 AM

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