Public vs. private corrections: How the debate began

Back in the early 1970s, the concept of a private firm operating a prison or jail facility was seemingly ridiculous


By Charles Albino

First, by way of introduction, "The Jersey Guy: A Wardens View" is a new featured column that will focus on topics directly related to current challenges confronting the field of corrections and its managers. The perspective will be that of a warden, with a distinctly "Jersey" twist. At times this column will inform, but most often it will endeavor to provoke corrections managers into thinking and hopefully talking about the issues facing our profession.

Today's conversation is the first in a four-part series that will attempt to establish the framework for a discussion of privatized corrections. Before that topic can be meaningfully broached, we need to explore the factors that facilitated the initial concept and subsequent growth of private corrections.

Back in the early 1970s, when I began my career in corrections, the concept of a private firm operating a prison or jail facility was seemingly ridiculous. The obstacles in having a law enforcement function performed by anyone other than sworn law enforcement officers were seemingly insurmountable.

Also, the cost of public corrections was not at a level that fueled such discussion. Corrections Officers in New Jersey were paid $9,174.00 per year as a starting salary and the work was anything but glamorous. In fact, corrections in New Jersey was not even a separate unit in government and was instead just a division of the Department of Institutions and Agencies, along with state mental hospitals.

However, as I was soon to discover, corrections was an industry about to explode in a financial sense. Efforts were underway to attract and hire a more educated, professional staff. Law enforcement unions fought to have corrections officers viewed as more than just "prison guards" and salaries grew in response to these developments. Along with these changes, a realization by the business community that money was being spent in corrections took hold. New companies emerged to provide general housing supplies, inmate commissary goods, and other amenities that catered directly to corrections.

Couple this with a movement toward longer, determinate sentences with mandatory minimum terms and the cost of corrections was multiplying exponentially. Corrections went from being "an afterthought" to, in most states, one of the largest, most costly departments of government.

This growth obviously did not happen overnight. The expansion described occurred over a twenty- to thirty-year period and dovetailed nicely with increased public sentiment for punishing offenders and the feeling that longer sentences yielded safer communities. In a political sense, voters were led to believe we could effectively address their concerns over increased drug use and acts of violence by just building more prisons and "burying" repeat offenders with massive sentences.

As this growth occurred, the business community again took heed. As a rule, government is not the most efficient operation, particularly in times of rapid expansion. Consequently, the question began to emerge – can we in private industry perform the functions of corrections for less? Since the principle cost of corrections had become salaries, the answer was a resounding "Yes." Corporations were formed or expanded to provide privately-operated correction services either in part, or as a whole.

The economic realities of the cost of publicly-operated correctional facilities soon caught the attention of legislators. On an ever-increasing basis, the conversation turned towards the possible benefit of contracted corrections services. The debate usually centered around whether to privatize a particular service, such as food or medical services, or to contract out an entire facility's operation.

Some states took bold steps and contracted with private providers for some of their individual corrections services and later, a limited number of entirely privately-run facilities. In these states, a blend of private- and publicly-operated prisons appears to be a permanent part of the landscape. In others, contracted corrections services were rejected outright or used only on a very limited basis.

The next development that returned attention to the public versus private corrections debate was the national economic downturn. Suddenly policy makers at all levels of government were facing increasingly difficult financial decisions. In states where the privatization of corrections had not been enacted, the discussion was, once again, front and center. As a result of these many intertwined factors, the debate over contracted corrections services still rages on today.

Next: Part 2: Private corrections: We can do it better and cheaper

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