Louisiana’s policymakers continue to do the wrong thing by viewing the state's corrections system as a jobs machine for constituents rather than focusing on efficiency.
Last month, prompted by state budget cuts, officials reworked contracts with two private prison operators. The state reduced its previous payment rate by more than $7 a day per inmate, resulting in the $24.39-per-inmate figure it pays sheriffs to house state prisoners. This will create the highest percentage ever, about 57 percent, of state inmates held at the minimum figure.
The move will save the state about $8.3 million this fiscal year, but also reduces the level of service. As the state’s private operators will receive the same rate as that of the parishes’ private operators, they will not have to provide any more than the minimal services expected from local jails. For example, they can scale back medical provisions and rehabilitative programs, which will cause the state to reshuffle inmates and eat into some of those savings.
This approach of making privatized prisons more like local facilities is exactly the wrong way to reduce costs while maintaining services in prison management. Instead, the state needs to privatize more of its prisons.
Excluding the state penitentiary at Angola because of its unique population mix, the other state-run prisons’ costs exceed the former rate of the privatized ones by over $25 per inmate per day. Theoretically, privatizing all of those and paying that same former rate would have saved Louisiana $76 million this fiscal year.
Given the varied population mix of offenders, the state probably should not privatize operations for all of the other six state institutions not already privately administered. Yet, savings in excess of the current policy clearly could materialize by privatizing some facilities.
Private operators typically reduce pay to more appropriate levels and/or reduce the workforce through more efficient practices. Historically, however, elected officials in Louisiana have vigorously resisted attempts to spread privatization further. Particularly, state legislators with districts in or near prisons enjoy giving the impression to their voters that they protect if not provide those jobs through their legislative influence. It apparently doesn't matter to them that this foists unnecessary costs on state taxpayers. Besides lawmakers, other state elected officials are ideologically invested in keeping the status quo.
Sheriffs also don’t like state privatization (even as some use private providers for their jails). When the state can reduce its costs, it can afford to house more of its own prisoners, making it economically less viable to send them to parishes.
Opponents of privatization trot out the occasional example of private facility mismanagement of finances and inmates; in the process, they ignore that the same abuses frequently occur in government-run institutions. Currently in Louisiana, some politically connected, former high-ranking state prison administrators continue to face investigation over allegedly corrupt practices and failure to discipline a guard and inmate involved in criminal activity.
Recently fueled by a federal Department of Justice report used as ideological cover for the Obama Administration to announce closing some privatized federal facilities, naysayers also point to some reports questioning cost savings and service quality by private operators. But that report has problems; it reviewed only a small portion of privatized federal institutions that mostly hold criminal aliens. Equating those to privatized state prisons generally mixes apples and oranges.
Most research on the issue — some funded by prison operators but much from independent sources such as academia and research groups — shows privatized corrections can bring definitive cost savings without sacrificing quality. Louisiana’s policymakers should set aside politics and more fully embrace this cost-effective approach.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Email him at email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.