Ohio shouldn’t gamble on private prisons

Any short-term savings could come at the expense of two core missions: rehabilitation and re-entry

The Michigan Youth Correctional Facility in Baldwin was ranked as one of the state’s most inefficient and costly institutions when it was operated by Geo Group Inc. of Florida. Michigan ended the contract in 2005.
The Michigan Youth Correctional Facility in Baldwin was ranked as one of the state’s most inefficient and costly institutions when it was operated by Geo Group Inc. of Florida. Michigan ended the contract in 2005.

Gov. John Kasich and state legislators should back off efforts to expand privately owned or operated prisons in Ohio. They just don’t work.

Making money off of locking up human beings seems to me about as righteous as profiting from slave labor. But set aside the moral issues. For most people, the question is whether private prison operators can perform the job and mission of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

The short answer is no.

The state has at least an economic interest in making sure inmates who leave prison succeed and stay out. Private prison operators don’t. For them, inmates are cash cows. Companies often cut costs with less training, lower salaries, and fewer benefits. High employee turnover makes prisons less safe.

No doubt, companies use efficiencies that the public sector can learn from. The private sector excels at building cars and creating iPads. But short-term profits don’t always meet the broader public interest.

In the hidden world of prisons, the risks are great. Prisoners have no constituency. Besides their families, few people care what happens to them.

They should. More than 95 percent of Ohio’s 50,000 prisoners will get out. When they do, they will either commit more crimes and return to prison at an annual cost of $25,000 to $40,000 each, or get jobs, pay taxes, and support their families. A lot depends on what happens to them while they’re locked up and just after they’re released.

The record of private prison operators isn’t good.

A federal investigation into brutality complaints last year found a “cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions” at a Mississippi youth prison run by Geo Group Inc. of Florida, including beatings and workers having sex with young inmates. Geo also paid a $1.1 million fine to the state for understaffing a New Mexico prison.

When Geo ran the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility in Baldwin, the Legislature’s independent auditor concluded that the so-called “punk prison,” ranked as one of Michigan’s most inefficient and costly institutions. It also had far more violent incidents than other maximum-security prisons. The state ended the contract in 2005.

The Michigan Department of Corrections partially privatized health care in the late 1990s. Treatment went from bad to worse. In 2006, I exposed dozens of egregious examples, including the horrific death of one mentally ill inmate, 21-year-old Timothy Joe Souders. Sentenced to one to four years for resisting arrest and petty theft, Mr. Souders died of heat and thirst, after spending most of his last four days strapped down in an isolation cell, naked and soaked in his own urine. The state settled a federal lawsuit filed by his survivors for $3.25 million.

Private companies are also less transparent. Despite taking $70 million of taxpayer money, Correctional Medical Services, the private company that provided primary care in Michigan prisons, fought my efforts to get information about the company and its doctors, arguing that it was not subject to public records laws.

In late 2011, Ohio became the nation’s first state to sell a prison to a private operator. The $73-million deal for the 1,700-bed Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut was followed by reports of crowding, staff turnover, assaults, inhumane treatment, and other problems.

Last November, a Lake Erie inmate died of a heroin overdose, Mike Brickner, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, told me.

A report issued in February by the state Correctional Institution Inspection Committee found big increases in inmate assaults on other inmates and on staff. Inspectors found long waiting lists for academic programs and reported low employee morale. Last fall, a state monitor found inmates in isolation, without access to running water or toilets, forced to defecate in plastic bags. Local police had to step up patrols to stop the smuggling of drugs and other contraband into the prison.

CCA spokesman Steven Owen told me the company has worked closely with the state to fix the problems, some of which preceded CCA management. Most of the issues were resolved, he said. In December, the American Correctional Association accredited the prison, but legislators need to monitor this prison closely, along with the rest of Ohio’s $1.5-billion prison system.

States privatize prisons to save money, but that doesn’t always happen, as states typically underestimate the costs of overseeing contracts. In Arizona, a Department of Corrections study found no savings with private prisons.

In Ohio, any short-term savings could come at the expense of two of ODRC’s core missions: rehabilitation and re-entry.

Under director Gary Mohr, the department has pushed sensible sentencing reforms and reduced recidivism rates to record low levels. More ex-prisoners are succeeding, instead of returning to crime and prison.

Dangerous and inhumane conditions at any Ohio prison will jeopardize that progress and put inmates and staff at risk.

Unfortunately, some politicians consider privatization a panacea — an article of blind faith. Instead, they need to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

When they do, they’ll stop pushing private prisons in Ohio.

Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: jgerritt@theblade.com or 419-724-6467. Follow him on twitter@jeffgerritt.