At a time when states are struggling to reduce bloated prison populations and tight budgets, a private prison management company is offering to buy prisons in exchange for various considerations, including a controversial guarantee that the governments maintain a 90% occupancy rate for at least 20 years. The $250 million proposal, circulated by the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to prison officials in 48 states, has been blasted by some state officials who suggest such a program could pressure criminal justice officials to seek harsher sentences to maintain the contractually required occupancy rates. “You don’t want a prison system operating with the goal of maximizing profits,” says Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and advocate for reducing prison populations through less costly diversion programs. “The only thing worse is that this seeks to take advantage of some states’ troubled financial position.”
Ohio became the first (and only) state to sell a state-owned penitentiary to a private prison company earlier this year. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), directed by Gary Mohr, has since decided that it would not sell any other penitentiary to a private company. The Ohio Correctional facility, formerly a state prison, bought by the CCA was recently cited for 47 violations.The nature of the violations included quality of food, hygiene and sanitation among many others.
A more central concern is the idea of guaranteeing occupancy in a private prison. It’s hard to imagine local officials, including law enforcement, judges, and other state and county officials pressured into filling prison beds. Instead of a bounty on imprisonment, we need incentives that do the opposite; reduce the number of prisoners behind bars. No doubt that given discretion, private corporations could reduce the costs of imprisonment, but at what cost. Ohio is in the process of finding that out. Florida take heed!