|The Changing Face of Corrections
|By Carl Nink
More than 1.6 million individuals are currently incarcerated in prisons in the United States, and more than 700,000 prisoners are released each year. The dilemma is that while crime rates are down, incarceration rates in the long term continue to rise.
Contrary to the general perception, at least 95 percent of all offenders in state facilities are released. Nationwide state prisoners could expect to serve about two years from arrival to release in 2010.
Productive use of the time offenders spend incarcerated is too often a missed opportunity for both the offender and the community. States with evidence-based programming are most likely reducing the rate of recidivism. Effective programs have demonstrated as much as a 26 percent to 40 percent reduction in recidivism.
It is therefore vital, given the costs associated with corrections systems in America that the taxpayer receives the maximum benefit for the resource invested. One option that is proving to be successful in increasing accountability is the use of performance contracting.
Questions are often raised about security and quality, as compared to publicly-operated facilities. The answer is that contracted prisons are not only held to account, but they are held to higher standards, which is as it should be. Government needs to set high expectations and establish a system of monitoring to ensure accountability for performance.
Only a handful of correctional facilities are owned by contractors; the majority of the prisons are contractor operated for state, federal, or local government. The contractor is required by the terms and conditions of their agreement to follow agency imposed standards such as:
Contracted prisons (about 8 percent of prison beds nationally) have been successfully used in the U.S. for more than 25 years, and are a viable option to limit costs without compromising service. Some states even have statutorily required savings, such as in Ohio at 5 percent and Florida at 7 percent. The states using public-private partnerships determine their costs and compare their costs with those contained within proposals submitted in response to government requests for service.
States using contractors continue to do so because the operator is providing a quality service at a reduced cost. Otherwise, the 30 states (6.7 percent of all state prisoners in 2010) and federal government (16.1 percent of all federal prisoners in 2010) would change how they operate.
Legal Accountability is High
The Harvard Law Review points out that there are many legal factors which increase contract prison accountability beyond that of the public prisons. Courts generally consider the judgment of government agencies as having greater credibility in contrast to that of contract corporations. Individual corporate employees have greater exposure to liability, since they are unable to claim qualified immunity in civil rights suits like their public counterparts. In being the target of inmate lawsuits, “…private prisons are, if anything, more accountable for constitutional violations than are public prisons.”
Correctional Systems Can Do Better
Within the U.S., with 68 percent of released inmates being rearrested and 43.3 percent being sent back to prison , the recidivism data and its relationship to correctional budgets is finally getting the attention it deserves. A significant number of states are focusing on reducing the enormous cost of recidivism. The fact is, our corrections system continues to fail in achieving success. If we look back, more than 80 percent of these releases had prior convictions suggesting the ‘failure’ of their earlier prison experience. Offenders are cycled in and out of our prisons, recommitting crimes in our communities along the way, and we continue to ignore the impact of new crimes and the escalating costs of new crimes, policing, and re-incarceration.
There is clear and convincing evidence that successful, well-managed prisons can make small but significant program investments that are both cost effective and will reduce recidivism by up to 40 percent.
The dimensions for defining a successful correctional facility are clear; they must be safe, secure, and humane, provide effective correctional programming, as well as be well managed. Not only is crime and its associated costs reduced, but the overall effect is widespread.
Greater Performance and Accountability
Market forces play a major role in private contractors providing the best services and management of prison facilities. Should a contractor not perform, they put themselves in a position to lose business on an existing contract and probably adversely affect any future contracts as well. This business priority necessarily demands that the company, warden, and staff pay close attention to their performance and ensure that every dollar is spent wisely and efficiently, minimizing waste. When private correctional contractors are engaged to design, build and/or operate prisons, it drives public sector change creating a win-win situation for taxpayers.
Recidivism, Education and Employment of Ex-Offenders
While access to criminal history data systems is restricted to law enforcement and public correctional agencies, it is important to pay attention to recidivism rates and programs that reduce the number of offenders returning to prison.
A successful prison is transparent, with published program outcomes. A key performance indicator for the industry is program completions (e.g. GED attainment, substance abuse programs, life skills classes, and vocational certificates). MTC, like other operators, has a data tracking system to provide ongoing feedback to senior executives and wardens on program performance, as well as resource utilization. In 2011, as a company operating 19 institutions with about 25,000 beds, MTC provided inmates with education, training, and treatment, as follows:
However, employment has always been a hurdle for ex-offenders. Incarceration for a felony can have a dramatic negative effect on one’s ability to secure employment, resulting in a higher than average unemployment rate. The scope of this effect can include such things as:
Cost to the Nation from Unemployed Ex-Offenders
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008 there were between 12 – 14 million ex-offenders of working age. Since felons face greater employment challenges, it is estimated that “this large population lowered the total male employment rate that year  by 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points. In terms of the gross domestic product, these reductions in employment cost the U.S. economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output.”
Keys to Cost Effective Recidivism Reduction
Besides substance abuse treatment programs, it is widely believed that education and training play a critical role in reducing recidivism and opening up more job opportunities. These programs also provide the base upon which the ex-offender can succeed in an entry-level job and move up within a company to gain more skills, experience, and pay. It has been estimated that correctional education in Washington prisons achieves a total benefit of $21,246 per correctional education participant in prison (2010 dollars):
Research comparing public and contract corrections demonstrates that contractors deliver reduced costs, high quality, and enhanced accountability. Contract prisons generate savings during design, construction, and start-up as well as program management for years in the future. Structured and fiscally responsible operations enable government leaders to allocate scarce financial resources to other important programs.
Tight budgets provide incentives to explore and expand competitive government practices as part of a long-term strategy to curtail spiraling prison budgets. Research proves that the introduction of the private sector enables government leaders to provide essential services that are flexible, responsive, accountable, at a lower cost, with quality that is as good or better than those provided by the public sector.
There can be no clearer argument—an offender’s time in a facility should be well spent in order to avoid a return stay. Maintaining a safe and secure facility is primary, for nothing goes further unless this mission is achieved; however, correctional facilities must be accountable for the time offenders spend behind bars and the degree to which efforts have improved the condition of the offender such that the propensity to re-offend is reduced. Without changing the current path, incarceration will rise, outpacing facility capacity and squeezing ever-shrinking resources.
Performance measurement is the great equalizer; which should be applied to all prisons regardless of what entity operates the facility. Those exceeding prescribed benchmarks are rewarded, whereas those failing to meet standards, performance measures, and outcomes are sanctioned and ultimately replaced.
Corrections.com author, Carl Nink, MBA, is the Executive Director of the MTC Institute, the research unit within Management & Training Corporation. Carl retired from the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2000 after 25 years, which included assignments as Warden and Assistant Director. This latter position provided an opportunity to oversee state contracting/privatization of prisons.
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