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Dungeons for dollars
By Brian Dawe
Published: 04/07/2008

Moneyhouse2 The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that there are more than 98,900 inmates in private prisons in America today. About 5.6 percent of state inmates and 13.7 percent of federal inmates are now making the ‘Dungeons for Dollars’ crowd rich.

Forget about public safety – according to one study, inmates escape ‘secure’ private prisons at a rate that is 41 times higher than public facilities. (one escape per every 310 inmates in private prisons compared to one per every 12,500 inmates in the public sector.) Forget about staff and inmate safety - inmate-on-inmate assaults are 66 percent higher, and assaults on staff are 49 percent higher in private prisons. Forget about the importance of experience and excellence in law enforcement – private ‘guards’ receive 35 percent fewer pre-service training hours and have an astonishing 53 percent annual turnover rate of security staff.

They are also not Peace Officers. They are private ‘guards’ who never swear an oath to protect the public, as their allegiance is to the corporation.

Forget about saving the taxpayers money – nearly every study conducted that was not paid for in part or in whole by the private prison industry itself shows no or little cost savings. Also, every academic study done on economic development shows that rather than private prisons in your community providing an economic boon, the hidden costs and designation as a “prison town” is an economic boondoggle. Private prisons are about one thing and one thing only – making money for the corporation.

Public correction professionals are judged by the safety of their prisons and the impact they have on the community. Private CEOs are judged by one thing - profit. Private prison operators don’t want fewer inmates; they want more.

They do not want alternative sentencing, probation or parole; they want warm bodies in their cells for as long as possible. (Some of them have been caught holding inmates past their release dates to make more per diems.) They do not want recidivism rates to go down; they want them to go up. They don’t care if there is increased violence in their prisons; they don’t live or work there.

More violence can also mean more profit. Violence brings with it new charges against the inmates, additional sentences, and loss of good time, which all result in more time behind the walls and, of course, for the corporations - more profit. Private prisons are notorious for understaffing and under training their employees. That allows them to keep costs down, while at the same time the violence increases.

When a new public facility opens, the majority of officers are seasoned professionals who transfer in. Conversely, private prisons often boast to elected local officials that 95 percent of the employees they hire will be right from their community. That means that 95 percent of the men and women working in those facilities will have NO correctional experience.

The wages they pay generally range from $8.25 to $10.00 an hour. Many times the biggest job responsibility that private prison guards had prior to working in a correctional facility was to be sure to ask, “Do you want fries with that?” The only pros in a private prison are the cons.

The privateers don’t like to offer programs to promote rehabilitation, although they will when pressed. Programs cost money and may increase the likelihood that inmates might actually make it on the outside and not come back, and that’s not good for the bottom line.

They do not want to hire and retain good help. If they did, they wouldn’t pay $8.25 - $10.00 an hour, offer few, if any, benefits, and they wouldn’t have a 53 percent annual turnover rate of security personnel either.

They do not want to be involved with local law enforcement. It costs money in the form of manpower to interact with the police. Indeed when there is an escape or riot, the privateers routinely call the home office and not local law enforcement when it happens. Their first concern is the bad PR they will get, and not the safety of the community.

The three biggest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America, Wackenhut/GEO and Cornell operate 207 facilities and have more than 141,500 available beds between them. All three are publicly held corporations. They must answer to their shareholders and not to the citizens of this country, as we in the public sector must do.

Fortunately, the number of state inmates housed in private prisons over the last five years has decreased by 1.3 percent. Unfortunately, however, under President Bush’s administration the number of federal inmates in private prisons has increased by an astonishing 60 percent during that same period.

Much of their growth can be linked to campaign contributions. Once again it’s all about the money.

Should we privatize the police or the military? How about DEA, Immigration officers, the Boarder patrol, the CIA, FBI or the ATF? Of course not, and we shouldn’t privatize corrections either.

Street police may catch the criminals, but it is professional correctional officers who must keep them away from the public. The safety of our communities should never be for sale.

Brian Dawe is co-founder of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. He also is a founding member of Corrections USA and served as their Executive Director until August, 2006. He has been in corrections for more than 24 years, and served as a Massachusetts CO from 1982 to 1998. Dawe co-founded the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union where he served on the statewide Executive Board for nine years, and served as Grievance Coordinator, Executive Secretary and Vice President. He can be reached at ACOIN1@aol.com.

Other articles by Dawe:

Behind the walls, 2/4/08


  1. Jiggerout 2278 on 04/27/2008:

    If you work in private corrections you get used to people bashing everyone involved in Private Corrections and they usually have the last news report as thier only reference. I have worked both sides of the fence and can tell you that there are as much bad at a Private Prisons as there are at public or state facilities. To make a blanket statment that people at Private Facilities are only intrested in profit only serves to further a limited view of the issue and is misleading. I currently work at a private prison that is fully staffed with some of the best and most dedicated corrections professionals in the business. You should also examine how well they are forced to operate within thier budgets and are responsible for results. State facilities could not operate at the same level with the same repercussion for non compliance that the private prisons do. Imagine if you are fined for one use of force that the state didnt approve of etc. The rules are very different for private and state facilities.The other thing you might want to consider is that if there were no need for Private Prisons then there would be none. People who dont want private prisons should just be prepared for higher taxes to build them. Problem with state vs private Prisons is that no state can operate a prison as fiscally responsible as a private prison can. As far as qualifications go Texas Private Prisons have to have Texas Jailers licence (TCLOS) Most Private Prisons have to have ACA Certification in order to operate as well. So if you want to post your opinion and agenda for public consumption get all the facts and figures before you attempt to "inform" others

  2. drayhell_07 on 04/27/2008:

    While I agree with some of the article, the statement that private corrections officers are not peace officers is a flat-out lie. I passed my POST test, passed my firearms training then trained at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center right along with Cadets that were going to state-owned facilities. Upon completion of my training, I WAS sworn in as a peace officer in the state of Georgia and did take an oath. As for the comment that most Correctional Officers have had no experience besides asking "do you want fries with that?", well, that is just absurd. It certainly appears the author has a personal axe to grind against private corrections and has chosen to bash the system as a whole. I am very proud of the career I have chosen, although I do wish I would have had the foresight to investigate the differences between private and state-owned facilities. Looking back, if I had known, I certainly would have selected a state-owned facility. The private facility I work at is in terrible shape. Half of the electronics work half of the time. We are terribly shorthanded and cannot guarantee the security of ourselves or the inmates, or the public we have sworn to protect. I am personally responsible for monitoring 200 inmates by myself with little to no functioning equipment which would be considered the indstry norm. Hell, I can't even get a flashlight to conduct my inmate counts after hours!! Private prisons do not only maximize profits by herding the inmates in, they do it by abusing the hell out of hard-working corrections officers and forcing them to do the work that was designed for 4 people. Please keep that in mind when you go on your next rant about private corrections officers-there are very dedicated ones out there, and your article seems to completely discredit their hard work. This is a subject area that you obviously do not have all your facts about.

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