Privatization Not at Fault in Prison Disturbance
Indiana Writers Group column for May 2 and thereafter
By Andrea Neal
Scratch privatization from the list of causes of the inmate disturbance at New Castle Correctional Facility. If you put the same Arizona offenders in a state-run prison, they’d have done the exact same thing.
You can’t move convicts miles from home, take away their cigarettes and their private reading material, and expect everyone to just get along. While any injuries to staff or offenders are regrettable, the April 24 uprising was predictable. The facility’s quick response, and the state’s transfer of the troublemakers to higher-security environments, should put an end to further thoughts of rebellion.
Within hours of the incident, Democrats jumped to blame privatization. State Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker was quoted saying, “What happened today is a tragedy. I think it all ties back to the fact that (the governor) has privatized essential government services." House Speaker Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, told The Indianapolis Star, "Prison for profit is not a good idea.”
These folks have forgotten the history of New Castle Correctional Facility. This is a privatization success story, and it’s too bad critics would rather play politics than face facts.
In the late 1990s, Indiana was in the same boat as Arizona, faced with a growing population of convicts and nowhere to put them. Hundreds of Hoosier inmates were sent to county jails or Kentucky prisons at a cost of $35 to $45 per inmate per day. (Sidenote: In 2001, more than 400 Indiana prisoners took part in a riot at Otter Creek Correctional Facility in southeastern Kentucky.)
The bed shortage prompted construction of the $130 million New Castle facility, finished in late 2001, and expansion of the Miami Correctional Facility, completed a year later. Yet both sat empty because the legislature didn't appropriate funds to operate them. Indiana had an $800 million budget deficit, and it cost less to send the offenders elsewhere.
The situation became an issue in the 2004 governor’s race. How could a state justify 2,000 empty beds while sending inmates out of state? After Mitch Daniels won the election, he named J. David Donahue as Department of Correction commissioner. Donahue immediately brought Indiana inmates home and contracted with the GEO Group, a private company that manages correctional facilities worldwide, to run New Castle. About 300 employees were hired there initially, with an additional 230 in the training pipeline as a result of a short-term contract to house Arizona offenders.
On March 12, the first hundred Arizona prisoners arrived. As of last week, 630 were housed in Indiana. Under privatization, a once empty building had become a major local employer and a temporary solution to another state’s overcrowding.
Yes, the disturbance revealed policy concerns that need to be discussed. But the question isn’t whether privatization is good or bad. The question is whether it makes sense to bring inmates from out of state. Indiana, whose prison population is growing at 3.5 percent per year, will eventually need all 2,416 beds at New Castle. In the interim, we have space to lease.
In an ideal world, inmates would all be housed close to home so family could visit. But ideal isn’t always possible. And remember: In the federal system, offenders are routinely shipped all over the country, and nobody bats an eye.
The most significant factor in last week’s uprising was that the inmates were upset about moving. Arizona convicts get many more privileges. The first transfers had not even been warned they would have to stop smoking. Another factor was staff inexperience, and inmates no doubt figured they could take advantage of that. Clearly, the Arizona inmates needed a more intentional transition process.
Both Donahue and John R. von Arx, the governor’s public safety director, were pleased with GEO Group’s response to the uprising. As Marion County auditor, Von Arx contracted with Corrections Corporation of America to run the county jail annex. He’s seen nothing in the literature since then to cause doubts about private management of prisons. “Just the opposite and I think GEO’s performance in this incident is a great example.”
A report by the free market Reason Foundation said, “Private prisons are delivering significant cost savings and equal or higher levels of quality when compared to government-run correctional facilities.” After evaluating 18 quality comparison studies conducted since 1989, Reason concluded, “Private prisons outperformed, or were equal to, their government counterparts in 16 of 18 studies.”
Prison management is one area where privatization has proved itself worldwide. The New Castle disturbance does nothing to change that fact.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.