Private prisons don’t solve CA budget crisis


Steep tuition raises at California universities have spurred widespread student protests and sit-ins.  These actions were reportedly “the tipping point” that prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask a very good question:

Thirty years ago 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and 3 percent went to prisons.  Today almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7 1/2 percent goes to higher education.  Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.  What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns?

Unfortunately, in this State of the State address, Schwarzenegger found only half the answer.  He proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit California from spending more on prisons than on higher education. To achieve that goal, he recommended privatizing at least some of California’s prisons.  “Competition and choice are always good,” Schwarzenegger optimistically declared.

Other states have tried privatization.  And cost-savings promised by private prisons “have simply not materialized,” according to the Department of Justice (p.68).  But while cost-savings have been scarce, security breaches have been abundant.  One survey found 49% more inmate-on-staff assaults and 65% more inmate-on-inmate assaults in private facilities than in comparable public ones.

Private corporations seek profits by cutting corners.  They attract less-qualified workers by providing inferior wages and benefits than state agencies.  The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has already condemned Schwarzenegger’s proposal.  Private prisons also generate profits by cutting prisoners’ food, medicine, drug treatment, GED classes, and reentry planning.

That’s a mistake.  Inmate welfare is not just a Constitutional requirement; it’s smart policy.  Education, drug treatment, and release planning reduce recidivism.

The California student protests against tuition hikes succeeded in capturing Schwarzenegger’s attention.  California students shouldn’t stop there.  The current proposal pits the interests of students against those of prisoners.  Both groups in fact seek a shared outcome: greater access to public education.

There’s a better way to reduce prison costs: reduce the prison population (e.g., Michigan in recent years).  End lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenders.  Expand probation, parole, and “specialty courts” that emphasize treatment over incarceration for addicted and mentally ill offenders.  Schwarzenegger is right to question prison costs, but his privatization proposal isn’t the answer.