Private Prisons: A Sensible Solution

The prison system in Washington state is being severely stretched by overcrowding, threatening the safety of the staff, the inmates and the surrounding communities. State run facilities average 141% of design capacity, housing over 4,800 more prisoners than originally planned. At the local level, city and county jails throughout the state are at 110% of design capacity.

Without new prisons, law enforcement officials will be forced to make difficult decisions about which dangerous criminals should be incarcerated and which should be allowed back onto the street. Unfortunately, because of tight budgets and other pressing needs, building enough government run prisons to safely hold the increasing inmate population is not financially feasible.

A new study from the Washington Policy Center offers a sensible solution to this problem. "Private Prisons: A Sensible Solution" suggests allowing private contractors to compete for prison construction and management contracts. Allowing private companies to compete does not mean giving over control of prisoners to big corporations. Sentencing and oversight would be managed by the state, but taxpayers would benefit from the competitive pressures introduced by private competition.

Throughout the nation and the world, vigorous competition among public and private prison firms is used to reduce the ever-rising cost of incarceration, while maintaining the high quality of service local communities expect. Market pressures and government oversight have combined to produce a responsive, efficient and effective private prison industry that can meet the demands of our state while encouraging existing government facilities to operate at an equally high level.

Private prisons are not a new concept. Since 1984 many states have successfully implemented competitive contracting programs. Today, private prisons house over 120,000 inmates in 158 facilities spread throughout 31 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico. The success of these programs was shown in three states we studied.

After implementing a privatization program Texas found that the average cost of their private prisons, $35.25 per inmate per day, was well below the $42.47 it cost to run a similar state operated prison. In Louisiana similar results were achieved. Two privately operated prisons saved the state 11% to 13% when compared to an identical state run facility, while also outperforming the state facility in safety, discipline and community placement. Showing the high quality of private prisons, the state of New Mexico evaluated a state, federal and private women's facility in eight different performance categories. The private prison far outperformed the two public prisons in six of the categories.

In 1995 the Washington State Legislative Budget Committee in Olympia compared the cost of private prisons in Louisiana and Tennessee to those of a proposed public prison here in Washington. They found that private prisons in the other states achieved savings ranging from 15% to 46% per inmate even after accounting for things such as the cost of living and facility design.

States using private prisons save up to 46% compared to state-run prisons in Washington.

Our report shows that when governments are faced with overcrowding and funding shortfalls, a sensible solution that delivers quality service at a low cost is competitive contracting. Dangerous criminals should not be released back into the community simply because we don't have a place to put them. Washington state lawmakers should consider authorizing private prison contracting. By harnessing the power of competition and the innovation of the free market to reform the corrections system, taxpayers and residents of our state will benefit.

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