Many counties and states around the country have handed the management of their prisons and jails to private companies. Seduced by claims of big savings, cash strapped governments believed privatizing correctional facilities would reap big benefits for taxpayers. Camden County is being similarly tempted today.
But these states and counties soon learned the cold hard truth about jail privatization. Not only did the big savings not happen, but many also ended up paying more — sometimes 10 times more — to run their jails and prisons. It’s a lesson Camden County can avoid learning the hard way.
Initial contracts between private jail operators and government often show significant savings, but when initial contracts expire renewal costs often double or triple. When states and counties predictably balk at the high renewal price, the private firms threaten to just walk away, leaving inmates without any supervision.
While cost is important, it isn’t the only reason why prison privatization is a bad idea for Camden County.
Employees of privately run jails are little more than security guards like you see strolling shopping malls and department stores. These Paul Blarts have no arrest powers and are not sworn law enforcement officers. They command no respect from prison inmates and seem to provoke animosity, aggression and violence among the prison population. Look no further than Youngstown, Ohio, which has paid millions as the result of lawsuits filed by inmates over a riot at a privatized correctional facility.
Without the benefit of having been trained as sworn law enforcement officers, these security guards pose a risk to themselves, other guards and the prison population overall. Low-paid guards are susceptible to bribes from prisoners to smuggle drugs, cell phones and other prohibited items. When introduced to a prison environment, these items make prison life more dangerous for prisoners and guards alike.
Another concern is prison escapes. Just last March, several prisoners escaped from a privately run jail near Kansas City, Mo. The inmates escaped at 5 a.m., but prison officials failed to alert the local sheriff until 1 p.m. in an apparent attempt to recapture the inmates without the embarrassment of alerting the news media. The sheriff refused to respond because it is not illegal in Missouri to escape from a private prison. As a result, several hardened criminals were back the streets.
Privately run jails and prisons are notorious for having little to no public oversight. As a result, problems that would otherwise be publicly disclosed and managed go unaddressed until erupting into a riot or an expensive lawsuit.
Camden County, and every county, deserves a secure and well-managed jail system that doesn’t break the backs of taxpayers. But turning the county’s jail operations over to a for-profit company is a disastrous plan that will lead to problems similar to those seen across the country: drastically higher costs, unskilled guards, riots and prisoner escapes.
The county freeholders must reject the seductive but empty promises of commercial jail operators.