Prisons:who should have the keys?

'Let Me Get This Straight' by Barry Knister

As a snowbird, I live in two political battlegrounds, Florida and Michigan. A recent Detroit Free Press commentator took up a matter of concern in both states--prison privatization. The writer is a professor at Hillsdale College, a private Michigan school often praised by Rush Limbaugh.

At the end of his argument in favor of privatization, the professor sums up this way: “Bottom line, if we want to lower prison costs we must find better ways to manage the system. If not, we will have significantly lower funding for more worthwhile expenses such as educating our children. I am much more comfortable having increases in aid to students than increased spending on inmates. Competition works. We should give it a try.”

Prison privatization is a hot-button issue in Florida, even among Republicans. An Associated Press story published in the February 14 Naples Daily News described the fallout that resulted from the 21-19 defeat of Senate Bill 2038: “Senator Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who led the charge against privatization, said the bill was ‘bad public policy.’ He paid the price for his opposition when (Senate president Mike) Hardopolos…stripped him of his chairmanship of the senate budget panel that oversees spending on prisons and the courts.”

In the February 4 Daily News, a letter writer opposed to privatization scoffed at bottom-line reasoning: “The private company savings are derived from higher inmate-to-guard ratios, lower hiring standards, less training, lower salaries. All of these combine to result in less safe environments inside and outside the prisons. *** Handing over the keys to for-profit entities jeopardizes our safety and well-being.”

The writer of a Feb. 27 letter also rejects privatization, but on different grounds: “Re: GOP’s state prison privatization plan to save $16.5 million yearly! We can do far better than that and save billions by legalizing drugs, just as we did in the 1930s with alcohol! This is a free country which obviously does not forbid people to harm themselves.”

This libertarian—or libertine--may be pulling our leg, but he still has a point: if as he claims “one third of all prison inmates are convicted for drug offenses,” legalization would probably achieve even greater savings than privatization. “All of a sudden,” he tells us, “there would be no market anymore, no smugglers/dealers, no illegal producers and no criminality. Drugs would be sold through drug stores and taxed, of course, just like alcohol.”

In discussing a series of New York Times articles on New Jersey’s halfway houses (“privately run adjuncts to the regular system of prisons”), Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman tells us the Times reports “portray something closer to hell on earth—an understaffed, poorly run system, with a demoralized work force, from which the most dangerous individuals often escape to wreak havoc, while relatively mild offenders face terror and abuse at the hands of other inmates.”

Since Krugman is a Democrat, what follows is predictable: “You might be tempted to say that it (the halfway house story) reflects conservative belief in the magic of the marketplace, in the superiority of free-market competition over government planning.”

But according to Krugman, this boilerplate rejection neglects to take note of something that should be equally important to bottom-liners: “…if you think about it even for a minute, you realize that the one thing the companies that make up the prison-industrial complex…are definitely not doing is competing in a free market. They are, instead, living off government contracts.”

How so? Again according to Krugman, “privatization can serve as a stealth form of government borrowing, in which governments avoid recording upfront expenses (or even raise money by selling existing facilities) while raising their long-run costs in ways taxpayers can’t see. We hear a lot about the hidden debts that states have incurred in the form of pension liabilities; we don’t hear much about the hidden debts now being accumulated in the form of long-term contracts with private companies hired to operate prisons, schools and more.”

Krugman concludes that “as more and more government functions get privatized, states become pay-to-play paradises, in which both political contributions and contracts for friends and relatives become a quid pro quo for getting government business.”

Regardless of your political persuasion, taking a second look at this issue reveals how important it is to seek more than one point of view. It also reveals that, even in the digitized present, there is still no substitute for newspapers.

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