Friday, November 02, 2007

Henson v. Levin: Are private prisons the answer, and if so, to what question?

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation suggests that with the Legislature considering greater regulation in the wake of the abusive conditions alleged at a private youth prison in Coke County, Texas "should not abandon the use of competition in corrections," but use the incident as "a promising opportunity to boldly restructure such outsourcing." I agree current approaches to outsourcing need to be "restructured," but with all due respect to my friend Marc, I think I disagree with all of this paragraph, which lies at the crux of his argument:
While the conditions at the GEO lockup were unsanitary, the sexual abuse cases at the core of this spring’s TYC scandal occurred almost entirely in government-operated facilities. Moreover, TYC spends $62,000 per year per youth on its own facilities, but its contract with GEO Group for this facility was $24,000 less. Of course, there’s no virtue in saving money if kids are being neglected, but the conditions could and should have been remedied for a cost far lower than that difference.
I know Marc opposes neglect as strongly as any advocate, but this analysis is misleading. For starters, we've seen plenty of sexual abuse at private prisons in Texas, at both the youth and adult varieties. Coke County wasn't involved in the scandals this spring, but previously at that facility, according to Texas Prison Bidness:
  • Several girls were sexually, physically, and mentally abused by Wackenhut employees, including a man with prior conviction for sexual abuse of a child; a lawsuit settled for $1.5 million (1999)
  • 15-year old female victim of sexual assault by Wackenhut employee committed suicide in wake of lawsuit settlement that allowed company to avoid accepting responsibility (1999)
  • TYC confirmed allegations that some staff members manipulated a “demotion/graduation” system to coerce girls into giving them sexual favors or dancing naked in front of them; some girls were raped or fondled, while others were made to disrobe and shower in the presence of male employees (1995)
So let's not pretend private youth prisons don't see sexual abuse problems just like publicly run ones do. It's an industry-wide problem, not just a government one, plus there's a history of such abuse at that Coke County unit going way back - indeed, repeated allegations of sexual abuse were why TYC stopped using the facility as an all-girls unit!

I'm surprised Marc didn't reference the case right here in Travis County at the state jail previously run by Wackenhut (now the Geo Group), where according to Texas Prison Bidness, "11 former guards and a case manager [were] indicted on felony charges of sexual assault and improper sexual activity and misdemeanor charges of sexual harassment." TDCJ had to take the facility over in response in 1999 and now runs it themselves.

Marc says private prisons cost less but are required to produce "exactly the same product as TDCJ facilities." While the locks on the door may be the same, the services are not. The main reason private prisons costs are cheaper are 1) they underpay and undertrain their staff, 2) provide little programming, and 3) they tend to cherry pick less serious, shorter-term inmates who are easier and cheaper to manage. For example, TYC plans to privatize care for its youngest inmates, 10-13 year olds, who don't tend to cause the bulk of assaults on staff or other serious, problematic behavior.

Also, the amount paid to the vendor isn't the only cost. As demonstrated at Geo units in Coke and Dickens Counties, the state already spends a lot of money to oversee its private contracts, and probably needs to spend more. And of course when we're crunching cost-per-inmate statistics, every time the state contracts with private contractors to take care of lower cost inmates, the average per-inmate cost at state-run facilities rises because they're left with the inmates who have worse behavior and greater service needs. There's plenty of evidence Texas private prisons aren't performing critical services - especially regarding staffing, implementation of required programming and meeting serious mental health needs - at private prisons in Texas.

Marc asserts that expanding use of private prisons would be a "buffer against overly powerful prison guard unions." Huh?! In Texas? This is a Right to Work for Less state! His example comes from California, which is a whole 'nuther kettle of fish, but unions for both TDCJ guards and TYC staff are politically weak, not to mention recent legislation made TYC employees "at will," causing many dozens to be fired for little or no real cause. That's just not a credible statement describing Texas corrections politics.

I've praised Marc's work when I thought he deserved it, so I hope he won't mind this friendly dispute. Under certain circumstances, I'm not against the use of private contractors for specialized corrections services, but these arguments far overstate privatization's benefits and encourage lawmakers to see private prisons as a way to do things on the cheap.

UPDATE: An alert reader points me to this July 2003 study comparing publicly operated and private juvenile corrections facilities. From the abstract:
Relative to all other management types, for-profit management leads to a statistically significant increase in recidivism, but, relative to nonprofit and state-operated facilities, for-profit facilities operate at a lower cost to the government per comparable individual released. Cost-benefit analysis implies that the short-run savings offered by for-profit over nonprofit management are negated in the long run due to increased recidivism rates.


Anonymous said...

It's an important debate. The line I agree with the most in Levin's original piece is this one:

"The true promise of competition in corrections lies not in saving money while providing the same product as state-run prisons, but in harnessing the innovation of the private sector to develop programming that will reduce recidivism, since 99 percent of inmates are ultimately released."

It's true that private providers can offer experimental programs far more quickly because they lie outside the cumbersome bureaucracies of government. And the best private agencies are often founded and run by veteran public professionals and experts who have well formed ideas about what ought to be done.

I've actually seen this in action before, in New Orleans, where in the 1990s the city experimented with privately run case management services for MHMR cases. My wife worked for one of these providers and it was definitely more effective than the public agencies.

However, in juvenile justice, the norm is that most private providers sell their services to state governments in terms of cost savings. And that is the rubric within which most supporters of privatized services view them (Levin excepted). And their historical track record is poor: they have usually cost as much or more than public services, not just in terms of dollars spent but in PR disasters.

Given what we've seen lately from the current TYC administration and the legislature, my fear would be that privatization would follow precisely the track that Levin decries. It most likely would simply duplicate existing services on the cheap. And I can easily imagine TYC oversight focusing more on damage control than on building a good juvenile rehab program.

The current leadership hasn't exactly shown a penchant for seeking innovation - as the peremptory dumping of the Blue Ribbon report demonstrates.

I'd also point out that the much-touted Missouri model gives us an example of an innovative, forward-looking, and cheaper rehabilitation program that was developed under public auspices. So I'm not sure there's an automatic correlation between private providers and innovation.

Having said all that, I do think that a completely restructured TYC would have an important need for some private providers to devise pilot services. This could be an useful tool if TYC were to consider a genuine makeover.

But I don't know that privatization should be an end in itself, or that it should become the dominant model for either facility management or service provision.

Bill Bush

Anonymous said...

The State Government is perfectly capable of operating efficiently despite all the red tape. They are also capable of innovation.

The problem with TYC is poor management!

Efficiency and innovation require strong management skills and intelligent achievable goals. Both qualities are scarce in both public and private youth facilities in Texas!

You can pay someone a low wage and get poor work that has to be done over and over again (think recidivism). Ultimately the cost is exhorbitant. Or you can pay an expert a decent wage, get the job done right the first time and save a lot of money over the long run.

The State of Texas pays high wages for poor work and expertise especially at the Management level.

The cost in the lives of youth is very high.

Anonymous said...

I have known Marc for a long time, well before he ever became interested in juvenile corrections. He tends at times to go off on tangents that align with his political philosophy without understanding the pragmatics or all the factors involved, so I generally take what he says with a grain of salt.

Howard A. Hickman

Anonymous said...


Marc's numbers on the cost of a private correctional facility are substantially off base. TYC's appropriation for the last biennium is over $32,000 per youth for private correctional facilities. Costs at Coke County were substantially above that number and did not include medical or psychiatric care. Private facilities do not provide the same thing for the money that a TYC institution provides. His assumption on costs and what a private facility provides for the money are totally off base.

Howard A. Hickman