Contracting for public functions is about more than mere cost. The public loses control of the service, raising hard questions about transparency and accountability. In the case of prisons, where the commodity is liberty, blurring the line between public and private responsibility is especially problematic. Crucial questions include:
1. How does the contract ensure transparency? Private prison contractors may be exempt or only partly subject to state open records laws. Will New Hampshire citizens know what contractors are doing? How can they see how contractors are spending their money?
- In 2010, the Corrections Corporation of America spent over $3 million to kill the federal Private Prison Information Act would have made private correctional facilities operating under federal contracts subject to the same open records laws as public facilities.
- In 2012, CCA defeated a shareholder proposal to voluntarily comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which applies to federal, state and local correctional facilities.
2. How are contractors held accountable for delivering results? How is enforcement performed? Who monitors? What penalties apply? What can we do if the contractor is understaffing or skipping security measures to save money?
3. How are workers protected? Is privatization just a way to change a job that’s paid a living wage with responsible benefits into a job that’s underpaid … so workers suffer from the so-called savings, and taxpayers end up subsidizing their children on Medicaid and reduced-priced lunches?
4. Is a new private prison company obligated to retain qualified staff? At equivalent salary and benefits? Within the union?
5. How much force can private actors use? How? When?
- Police officers are issued guns and authorized to shoot to kill, with many rules, restrictions and special training. What about private corrections officers and taser guns? Batons? On the compound? Off the compound? In pursuit after an escape?
- Hard questions need to be answered in advance and trained in advance – questions that do not even arise in the context of public prisons and purely public responsibility.
6. What are the rules of engagement? If there’s a riot in a private prison, can the local public police force enter the compound? Do they need to be searched? Can they bring their weapons? Most prison operators don’t want weapons on the compound because weapons ultimately can be used against anybody. When is this negotiated? Hopefully not at midnight on the night of the riot … but it’s far harder when different decision-makers answer to different people, some of whom live in different parts of the country.
Success in life is never guaranteed. What is the cost of failure – and who bears that risk?
7. Are savings guaranteed? What if expectations are not met?
8. What is the long term impact of the state losing control over or our ability to perform this function internally? If it doesn’t work, can we reopen a closed prison? How?
9. What will happen to old or unused properties? If a prison in Berlin is closed, what will happen to the vacant facilities and property?
The Ultimate Question
Behind all these technical questions lies one that matters the most.
10. Who does the vendor work for?
- Does the vendor work for the public? Or does the vendor work for the shareholder and CEO? In a public prison, we know who’s in control.
“Since the goal of for-profit private prisons is earning a profit for their shareholders, there is a basic and fundamental conflict with the concept of rehabilitation as the ultimate goal of the prison system.” USA Presbyterian Church