There are valid reasons why the citizens of Pennsylvania are opposed to privatization of prisons. In other states, privatization has not fulfilled its promises. For example, in Michigan, when they privatized services for their prison system they encountered difficulties finding adequate health care services and the privately contracted food services led to numerous hidden costs.
Prisons are a crucial part of law enforcement and a central part of government. Prisons should be operated by the government and held accountable to the public. Private prisons are accountable to their investors and their owners. Most people do not think much about conditions for inmates until one of their loved ones lands in jail. For profit companies have to make a profit and therefore have an incentive to cut corners which can endanger prisoners, employees and the public. Private groups may refuse the most violent and hard to handle prisoners. Additionally, private prison operators have a financial incentive to seeing the prison population grow. They may lobby government for legislation that benefits them. A situation where shareholders and investors make money from other citizens being deprived of their liberty is very dangerous.
More than 30 states have attempted to run privately owned prisons and were found not to be successful at saving money. They spent more in the long run because the prisons who took the difficult cases cost more. Years of research concluded that cost savings from privatizing are not guaranteed and appear to be minimal.
Moshanon Valley Correctional Center in Clearfield County opened after much controversy in 2006. It is the only privately operated prison in Pennsylvania. It has 1495 beds for low security prisoners, but is likely to close because of push by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to cut costs. The prison organized a union in August of 2011. They voted against taking a pay cut so if the Florida GEO Group cannot meet the government financial package, the state of Pennsylvania will not be able to house any prisoners in it.
Our best solutions to the problems of lowering the costs of incarceration lie in the cutting of the populations that end up in jails. Drug, alcohol and treatment programs should be sped up. Mandatory sentences should be relaxed, and the streamlining of the probation and parole process would bring about the budgetary figures that we want.
Faith communities are discouraging people from privatizing prisons in a number of locations. Their approach is in the public interest not driven by profit. They advocate for programs that would reduce recidivism and help people in prison turn their lives around. The privatized prisons in recent years have had too much incentive to lock people up.
Ellen Kadransky, March 31, 2012