Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

September 23, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Private Prisons


  • Arizona is in a fiscal mess. To clean it up, the state will have to cut costs or raise revenue. Privatizing prisons might be a way to do both. Earlier this month, Governor Brewer signed House Bill 2010 which allows the state to start looking for a private company to operate one or more state prisons. Mike Duran, President of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers' Association, and Ken Gilroy, Editor of "Privitization Watch" for the Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank that advances free market principles and limited government, debate the idea of private prisons.
Guests:
  • Mike Duran - President, Arizona Correctional Peace Officers' Association
  • Ken Gilroy - Editor of "Privitization Watch," for the Reason Foundation
Category: Law

View Transcript
Ted Simons: As we just heard, Arizona is in a fiscal mess. To clean it up, the state will have to cut costs or raise revenue. Privatizing prisons might be a way do both. Earlier this month, Governor Brewer signed House Bill 2010 which allows the state to start looking for a private company to operate one or more state prisons. Here to talk about that is Mike Duran, president of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers' Association. And Len Gilroy, editor of "Privatization Watch" for the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank that advances free market principles and limited government. Thank you both for joining us on "Horizon."

Len Gilroy: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Mike, let's start with you. Do private prisons have a place in Arizona?

Mike Duran: Well, private prisons already exist in Arizona as you know and they've been existing in Arizona. I don't think the problem is with having them in Arizona. I think the problem is that with the house bill 2010 and taking over the existing facilities we have now. That's where the problem lies.

Ted Simons: Why taking over existing facilities? Why is that a problem if it’s ok to have them here in the first place?

Mike Duran: It's never been done. I think we're a prime example of -- it reminds me of the ALT fuels fiasco from years past where this bill was introduced and submitted without them thinking long term. I have to tell you that there's no protections in the bill itself. There’s no transparency to it. It looks like it was made for the private prisons themselves, not the public or the officers that run the prisons.

Ted Simons: And the idea of private prisons, ok in some respects but not ok as an overriding way of doing business. Your response.

Len Gilroy: I would say that private prisons have a long track record of providing quality services at a lower cost than a public option. That’s been validated-- Vanderbilt had a study that said the same thing. It states a blend of private and public prisons better manage their correction budgets and have lower cost inflation in the budgets over time and we're seeing a tremendous amount of interest in the usage of private prisons out there among the states and the federal government as well-is on the rise. That's a slow rise and right now, the private corrections account for about 8% of the total prison population in the United States so we're not at risk of widespread prison privatization but it does have a valuable role in keeping corrections budgets in check and at the same time, maintaining quality services. Under strict oversight from a federal -- excuse me, from a government agency.

Ted Siomons: The idea that running these prisons will save the state money -- valid?

Mike Duran: Not so valid. I'm more in the aspect of the security aspect of private prisons. Probably profitable, I'm sure those industries are profitable. It shows, they're on the stock market, by chance. If you want to call that successful, absolutely. But you know what? We have more at stake here. We have the safety of the public. That I don't think was taken into effect and that's what I mean by ALT fuels. It wasn't thought through. I want to quote another study. From James Austin, Professor at George Washington university. Assaults on staff are 49% higher on private prisons. In a profit tier, they make money. If you want to measure it that way, they’re successful.

Ted Simons: What about that the concern regarding security at private prisons as opposed to state-run facilities?

Len Gilroy: Well, the private prison industry would not be able to sustain itself if it was not providing adequate levels of security and living up to its end of the deal under contractual obligations with the public sector client. Harvard Law Review did a study that found on nearly every performance indicator that private prisons outperformed public prisons. There's a 90% renewal rate in the contract out there in the industry. So if they were doing a bad job, they wouldn't see their contracts renewed at such a high level.

Ted Simons: What about the concern-there's reports that private guards get less pay and less training than state officers. These things. That should be a concern. Especially the less training part.

Len Gilroy: Well, there's two pieces to that. On the pay side, there's a lot of different areas where the pay scale is definitely higher than in the private sector. That's not, you know, unique to the corrections field. On the training side, what we find is that, for instance, there are many private prison companies that require -- or that are required to get their prisons accredited by national accreditation organizations. That's part of the contract. Have to live up to the contracts to the same level of training and some companies will go beyond that level.

Ted Simons: Are you comfortable with that?

Mike Duran: The quotation he's talking about, I believe it's the American Correctional Association. So, it's a private association patting the back of a private company. So I don't know any public sector that would --

Len Gilroy: I would challenge that. In fact, the American Correctional Association is actually -- they accredit both public and private prisons. They're a national accrediting organization for the corrections industry and you find out there are about 50% of -- according to our research of private prisons -- meet the accreditation standards and while 10% of the public prisons have gone for the accreditation.

Ted Simons: If the training were the same, would you still have a problem with safety?

Mike Duran: It's not, and I don't think it would be, so really that's not the question. I'll tell you, it is different. I've got letters from private prison guards and that's a difference. We're professionally trained, state certified, versus a private guard is what it is. And which one do you want protecting the public? Which one do you want protecting that convicted felon? That's up to the --

Len Gilroy: Can I address that point? One of the things -- again, you have to realize in prison privatization or any type of privatization, it all depends on the contract. The success or failure thereof of an initiative thereof will depend on what's in the contract and how -- what standard you hold the private sector to and how you monitor and enforce that. And so these are policy issues and it's something -- so I think to address Mike's concern, those are issues that you can embed within the contracting process itself.

Ted Simons: It's a policy issue but if something goes wrong, it's one thing to say the private sector did something wrong, ok we're going to fix it. If something goes wrong with maximum security prisons, that's a big wrong. That’s something that we can't afford to have anything go wrong with. Is there not a concern that says free market, if you're not doing a good job, you don't use the service. We can't afford to have someone not doing a good job.

Len Gilroy: Well, I think you have to -- first of all, the maximum security realm, there are a number of maximum security private prisons around the country and the world, and again, I would say that -- one of the things you get with privatization is accountability. If, for instance, you were to privatize a maximum security facility and the private sector did not live up to their deal and you had safety issues and whatnot, well the accountability comes in the contract and your ability to yank the contract if they're not performing. The private sector has every incentive to perform. If they don't, they'll lose business and bad things happen in good prisons. Bad things happen in good public prisons – and bad things happen in good public and private prisons. So these are issues that are gonna come up regardless.

Ted Simons: To that point, if they're not doing a good job and historically private prisons were not doing a good job, wouldn't it suggest most folks would say we don't want it anywhere near us?

Mike Duran: Absolutely and as a matter of fact it happened recently in Tennessee. Hawaii, one the private prisons was contracting Hawaiian prisoners and had safety concerns so pulled the contract. That was a couple of weeks ago, actually. And it happens around the state all the time. Arizona did, Arizona pulled -- actually it was a mutual agreement. I believe it was Indiana, so they're not renewing the contracts all the time and the private prison such out there that it's a cheap scapegoat. That's what I call it. If this doesn't work, get another private prison. Private prisons don't work.

Ted Simons: What about the idea of investigations and how the state prison investigators working on the inside not only stop crime on the inside but help with local law enforcement on the outside? How does a private -- how do they get involved with state law enforcement?

Len Gilroy: Well in many ways, well first of all you have oversight of the contract which typically involves state correctional employees that monitor, that monitor the contract, essentially, they're people paid by the state to go to a private prison and look for problems and so many of them happen on a daily basis. You have someone there every day. Sometimes on a weekly basis but you have level. Also in the contracts, for instance, if there are disturbances or other types of issues that come up, the contracts require the private contractor to interface with public sector law enforcement. So you have to understand this is not -- it's not public versus private. This is a situation where the public sector and the private sector are coming together in a partnership because it's in both of their interests to make it work.

Ted Simons: Does that ring true to you?

Mike Duran: Well if it’s a partnership and we’re to work together, what I'd like to see in the bill, 2010, is total transparency. For them to open their books, be able to do that, put that in the law. Put that in the bill. Because I think if do you that, I don't think the private prisons will want to set foot in Arizona. I believe that.

Ted Simons: The critics here will--the peace officers' association saying you're worried about job loss and you’re worried aboutpays being cut and these things. Benefits lost and this sort of business. How do you respond?

Mike Duran: Let's talk about the retirement program. Depending on how the private for-profit prison sector wants to come in, if they want to slide in, it will cripple it. If they want to come in as drones and take over the whole prison system, it will bankrupt the correctional officer's retirement program. The county sheriff's office are involved in that. It affects quite a bit.

Ted Simons: Will retirement pay out these things? That's a lot of money going out in one fell swoop. Does that still make this cost effective?

Len Gilroy: I think, absolutely, the data shows -- a survey of 30 state correctional agencies just this year found on average, states were saving 28% in costs on the corrections costs. So now, I understand, and I respect Mike's concern about public employee pensions and, again, that's one of those policy issues in which my suggestion there would be let's not -- if this moves forward -- and we should say "if" because there's nothing guaranteed here. But if it does and say there's $100 million upfront payment which is in the bill, instead of blowing the money on budget reduction, I would suggest maybe a better way to use the money would be to deal -- to deal with these issues in terms of pensions and things like that.

Ted Simons: The concept of the bill, moving forward, exploring, seeing if anyone is willing and how far they're willing to go, should we at least not look into this?

Mike Duran: I think the legislation believes there's an obligation it look into it. Once again, I think they need to let the public know exactly what's going on and what it involves. Like I said, there's a lot of concern out there, not only with the officers, with public safety in general. Taking over -- we were talking earlier, I know there was a proposition sent in by our director that we have land available, and the state can profit from the private sector by giving or selling the land we have on our prisons grounds and building new prisons and we can assist, like you said, how do we involve ourselves with local law enforcement? We involve ourselves all the time. We just had a big sting, our organization- security threat group- worked with the FBI to catch gangs recently and we also, our canine unit, are always assisting with drugs and chasing people. It's great.

Ted Simons: Is that the kind of thing that private prisons with private guards can work as effectively -- I went through this earlier. Can you work as effectively as those agencies?

Len Gilroy: It's not a question of can. It's do they and it's required under the contract.

Ted Simons: Being required under a contract is a different thing than getting the job done. Can they get the job done?

Len Gilroy: Absolutely. You have over 150 private prisons just in the United States right now. Arizona sees fit to house its own inmates in other states in private prisons. If it's ok to send an Arizona inmate to another state, why can't we send an Arizona inmate to a private prison in our own state?

Ted Simons: We'll stop it there. Gentlemen, appreciate having you on.

Mike Duran: Appreciate it.

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