Easing The Strain
Private prisons are relieving the pressure on a system bulging at the seams.
An inmate in a CCA prison receives instruction.
Photo courtesy CCA.
With an infrastructure groaning under the pressure of ever-increasing prison populations and the constant need for facilities upgrades, state corrections officials across the nation are depending more on the private sector for cost-effective and efficient solutions.
Following a fluid national trend, Oklahoma is home to six privately owned and operated correctional facilities. “We’re probably fifth or sixth in the country with our population in private prisons,” says Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Justin Jones, adding that approximately 24 percent of Oklahoma’s prisoners are housed in privately owned facilities. “It’s been a growth industry for a few decades.” Over the last year, Jones says, Oklahoma’s prison population increased by more than 600 inmates, with approximately 240 transitioned to private facilities.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) spokesman Steve Owen, whose company operates four Oklahoma facilities, says both state and local governments can realize the financial benefits of introducing the private element to a state’s correctional system. “Often, we’re the largest employer in a community,” Owen says. When a state reaches an agreement with a private administrator, the administrator purchases land, constructs and manages a facility using its own resources exclusively. “Because we own the facilities, one of the benefits is that the taxpayers don’t have to come up with the funds.”
As a for-profit company, the administrator is subject to local and state taxes, in addition to absorbing incarceration costs traditionally left to the state. A recent CCA purchase of a pre-existing Ohio facility resulted in what Owen estimates to be an immediate injection of $72 million into the state’s economy and an annual operational savings of $3 million.
However, Jones says peaks and valleys in the economy drive the degree to which state corrections functions are privatized. The difference is visible in the industry’s sales pitch. “They don’t necessarily promote themselves as being cheaper anymore,” says Owen.
The process for placing a private prison in a state is a two-way street. “What typically happens is that states issue requests for proposal,” Owen explains. The state will publicize its need, and the private administrator will respond with a proposal outlining how it can meet the state’s needs.
In addition to solving financial quandaries, Owen says exercising the private option often operates as a state correction system’s pressure release valve. Conversion of living spaces such as day areas and classrooms designed for rehabilitation purposes into sleeping areas is an all-too-common occurrence. “They’re under court order to lower their prisoner population to remain constitutional.”
Jones says Oklahoma has reached its limit where conversion opportunities are concerned. “We’re pretty much to the point that we don’t have anything to renovate,” he says. Similar conditions in California and Arizona have resulted in two of CCA’s Oklahoma facilities contracting to house inmates from those states. While housing inmates in facilities outside of the convicting state’s borders isn’t an ideal situation, Owen explains that such arrangements are intended as temporary solutions until local conditions allow inmate transferal back to facilities in the inmate’s convicting state.
Despite past and current privatization, an unpredictable economy and the fluctuating nature of criminal activity render predicting Oklahoma’s need for future privatization a roll of the dice. Jones suggests the DOC will take a wait-and-see approach. “You take it as it comes,” he says. “We can’t go into debt.”