Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime

Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime

Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime

Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime


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When prison privatization began in the United States in the early 1980s, many policy analysts claimed that the result would be higher costs, declining quality, and an erosion of state authority. Bringing together five of the leading researchers of prison privatization and criminology, this authoritative survey addresses the economic as well as the social implications of prison reform. Economist Ken Avio begins with an analysis of the broader issues surrounding the private-prison debate, such as punishment and recidivism, and crime deterrence. Charles Thomas, the world's leading authority on private prisons, provides the empirical context for understanding the debate, examining their historical origins, present status, and future prospects. Samuel Jan Brakel and Kimberly Ingersoll Gaylord examine the costs and quality of private prisons, and Bruce Benson argues that prison privatization be instituted in concert with certain aspects of the criminal justice system.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781598131864
Publisher: Independent Institute, The
Publication date: 11/23/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 248
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Alexander Tabarrok, research director of the Independent Institute, edited The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society, and Entrepreneurial Economics. Charles H. Logan is the author of Private Prisons: Cons and Pros.

Read an Excerpt

Changing the Guard

Private Prisons and the Control of Crime

By Alexander Tabarrok

The Independent Institute

Copyright © 2003 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59813-186-4



Alexander Tabarrok

We now have several decades of experience with prison privatization. Judging from the continued controversy, we have learned little from this experience. Yet if we look behind the controversy and evaluate the accumulated evidence, it becomes clear that we have learned a great deal.

We now know that private prisons can be built more quickly, operated at lower cost, and maintained at a quality level at least as high as government-run prisons. To be sure, some private prisons are better than others, and the worst-run private prisons are not as good as the best-run government prisons. But as Samuel Jan Brakel and Kimberly Gaylord demonstrate in chapter 4, we now have ample evidence to say that on average private prisons offer substantial cost savings with no loss in quality. (All the authors in this volume discuss the cost issue but, in particular, see chapters 2 [Avio], 3 [Thomas], and 4 [Brakel and Gaylord].)

You Get What You Contract For

What we have learned from prison and other types of privatization is that you get what you contract for. The early critics of prison privatization were correct that if governments were to write prison contracts solely based on price, then they would get cheap prisons of low quality. What the critics didn't understand, however, was that with experience it has become possible to write effective multidimensional contracts that include procedures for the careful monitoring of prison output. Such contracts provide incentives to produce high-quality prisons that are nevertheless considerably less expensive to run than their government counterparts.

The argument that privatization works when governments write multidimensional contracts with procedures for the careful monitoring of output does contain a hint of inconsistency. One of the arguments for privatization is that owing to a lack of incentives, government tends to be inefficient. But if government is inefficient at producing the output of prisons, why should we expect it to be any more efficient at producing prison contracts? This point surely has merit, which is one reason to maintain a distinction between the terms contracting out (in which the government remains as buyer of privately produced goods and services) and privatization (in which the government exits the industry as both buyer and seller).

The inefficiency of government as a contract writer is a real problem. In his chapter, Charles Thomas points out that in many cases privatization has turned into "governmentalization" because contracts with private suppliers are made so detailed that the private suppliers in essence are required to duplicate public facilities down even to the prisoner meal plan (see also Benson's chapter). It is a tribute to private industry or perhaps an indictment of government production that some meaningful cost savings are possible even in this constrained setup. Nevertheless, "the same only somewhat cheaper" is not an inspiring slogan. The really significant gains from privatization will come when the private sector is given room to innovate and experiment.

It is not easy to write contracts that prevent private firms from taking advantage of government bureaus yet that allow them enough flexibility to innovate. Even for those of us who believe that government is terribly inefficient, contracting out might be worse than government provision precisely because it combines a buyer who has weak incentives to choose carefully with a seller who has strong incentives to cut costs. When a government bureau is the seller, you don't expect it to be very efficient, but that includes not being very efficient at taking advantage of the buyer. (See also Ken Avio's comments on this issue in chapter 2.) That is some comfort, but not much. Scandals involving public prisons are plentiful enough that it is surprising how little attention has been given to the monitoring and disciplining of public bureaus compared to the attention lavished on the problem of monitoring and disciplining private corrections firms.

In principle, contracts that discourage opportunism and allow innovation are easy enough to write if the buyer can measure and rate the firm's output; however, prison output is not easy to measure. Prison privatization, however, has encouraged better contract writing, and large strides have been made in accurately measuring output. In chapter 3, Thomas discusses a number of the best practices that have been established, including on-site monitoring, penalty and bonus clauses, and third-party quality assurance by organizations such as the American Correctional Association.

Another solution to the problem of opportunism and innovation is repeated dealings. Private firms' expectation of earning repeat business functions as a check on opportunism and gives government bureaus the confidence to write more open-ended contracts that allow for innovation. The gains from a given prison privatization thus will be larger the more secure privatization is as a staple of the correctional system. The process can work in reverse as well. When public-sector employee unions threaten to "take back" the private prisons through their political power, they threaten the entire enterprise because they make the industry less secure of its future and thus more amenable to opportunism.

The gains from privatization also will increase the more extensive privatization becomes. At present, private firms compete primarily with public bureaus — which is sort of like the repeated competition between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. But to raise the level of the industry truly, it is necessary that the best compete against the best. Competition works better when all the competitors have strong incentives to achieve, which means that privatization will be more successful when a large share of the prison industry is privatized, and competition between private firm and private firm is the norm.

Prison Privatization and Airport Security

It is unfortunate that the knowledge we have gained from prison privatization was not put to use in the debate over airline security following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. After the attacks, many people immediately assumed that more government was necessary, and thus the Aviation Security Act, passed just two months after the attacks, federalized airport security. But on 11 September 2001 airport security did not fail at its assigned task, which was to keep bombs and illegal weapons off the plane. It is difficult to see, therefore, how federal workers would have performed better.

No country has more experience with terrorism than Israel, and Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport uses private security firms to do major portions of its security work. In Europe, entire airports increasingly are run by private corporations. The main airports at Athens, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Rome, Vienna, and Zurich, for example, are run by private for-profit firms (Poole and Butler 2001). Government is not absent in these airports, but, as with private prisons, it remains content with defining acceptable levels of output and creating procedures to measure and test the performance of the private companies. As a result, European airports typically are run more efficiently and more safely than their U.S. counterparts.

The Big Picture

The case for private prisons is best evaluated in the context of the case for prisons more generally. Thus, economist Ken Avio opens Changing the Guard with an analysis of the broader questions: Does prison pay? What do we know about punishment and recidivism? How large is the crime-deterrence effect? What is an optimal prison sentence? Are too many people in prison or too few? Who should go to prison?

Bruce Benson's chapter demonstrates the importance of these larger issues by questioning a central tenet of pro-privatization doctrine. When prison privatization first became an issue, a common argument was that private prisons would not reduce costs, but that if they did so, cost savings would come at the expense of quality. We now can say with assurance that the evidence rejects this argument. Does it follow that private prisons are therefore desirable? Not at all, argues Benson. The Roman Empire's private tax collectors raised revenue efficiently, but it is difficult to argue that such efficiency benefited the populace. Similarly, Benson argues that precisely because private prisons reduce costs, they should be avoided — so long as they are embedded within a criminal justice system that wastes lives and resources on imprisoning people for victimless crimes. Not everyone will accept Benson's conclusion, but his warning is well taken; private prisons and other innovations in crime control cannot be evaluated without also taking a hard look at who we imprison and why.

The Politics of Prisons

Even if we accept Benson's normative foundations, we may nevertheless favor private prisons over public prisons if the political pressure to expand public prisons is greater than the pressure to expand private prisons. Benson himself notes that public law enforcement bureaucracies have been among the most powerful interest groups lobbying in favor of prison-expanding policies such as the war on drugs. Like other groups, law enforcement lobbies for policies that increase the demand for its services. It is no accident, for example, that every year the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), one of the most powerful unions in California, sponsors the Victim's March on Sacramento. The prison union is also the main backer of such "grassroots" groups as Crime Victims United of California. Similarly, the union was one of the primary funders of the effort to pass California's three-strikes law and is today one of the primary opponents of limiting three strikes only to violent offenders. Not surprisingly, in a fact that reminds us that Benson's concerns are not restricted to private prisons, the union also works to restrict drug policies that promote treatment over imprisonment.

Of course, it is true that the owners of private prisons also would have an incentive to lobby for more prisons, but there is a difference. The CCPOA has a virtual monopoly on prison workers, so any increase in prisons benefits its constituents. But even today there are multiple firms that run private prisons; thus, a firm that lobbies to expand prisons in general (as opposed to lobbying to expand its prisons) does more to benefit its competitors than it does to benefit itself. Indeed, as the private-prison industry grows larger, the incentive for any one firm to lobby for general prison-expanding policies declines.

It is difficult to say whether the increase in the demand for prisons brought about by the lobbying of the prison guard union will exceed the increase in the quantity of prisons that would occur with the lower costs brought about by prison privatization. But, even if we accept Benson's concern for the victims of victimless crimes (i.e., those who are imprisoned for such crimes), it still might be the case that private prisons are favored.

Rightly or wrongly, most interested observers of prisons are concerned about costs and quality, not about what an economist would call the general-equilibrium effects of prison privatization on how many people are imprisoned and for what crimes. On the cost score, as the chapters in Changing the Guard demonstrate, private prisons are superior to their public counterparts. Why then do we not see more privatization? Charles Thomas, who has plenty of experience in this area, points to politics and the power of special-interest groups, in particular the correctional agencies and the prison guard unions. Of course, he is correct. Prison populations skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990s, and the pressures this escalation brought to bear allowed for some privatization. Now that prison populations appear to be leveling off, it will be more difficult to overcome the barriers to change. Yet I remain optimistic that the facts in favor of privatization have some weight — not as much as I would like, but enough so that Changing the Guard may make a difference in changing public policy toward prisons.


The Economics of Prisons

Kenneth L. Avio


The number of prisoners in the United States quadrupled in the 1980s and 1990s, rising from 319,000 in 1980 to more than 1.33 million in 2001. The total number of persons in the correctional system — that is, in prison, in jail, or on probation or parole — has more than tripled, rising from 1.8 million to 6.3 million. The correspondingly enormous increase in the direct and indirect costs of the criminal justice system raises the obvious question: Have the outlays been well spent? Does prison pay? Within this larger question lie a host of other questions. What are the alternatives to prison? How extensive should parole and probation be in an optimal prison system? How do prisons fit within the larger criminal justice system? Can and should prisons be privatized? What do we know about recidivism? Do rehabilitation programs or manpower programs work to reduce recidivism? What are the long-run costs of prison on former inmates? With the goal of shedding light on some of these questions, this paper surveys the English-language literature on prisons since Becker's 1968 seminal paper. Discussion is for the most part limited to research by economists or to authors taking a law and economics perspective.

For ease of use the paper is divided into eleven more or less independent sections: (1) Efficiency and Equity; (2) Prisons versus Fines; (3) Parole; (4) Organizational Design; (5) Privatization; (6) Statistical Models of Recidivism; (7) In-prison Rehabilitation; (8) Manpower Programs for Former Prison Inmates; (9) Criminal and Legitimate Labor Market Opportunities for Former Prison Inmates; (10) Do Prisons Pay?, and (11) Additional Topics and Suggestions for Future Research.

Efficiency and Equity

Economists are typically consequentialists: they assume that consequences alone should be taken into account when making judgments about right (better) and wrong (worse). Adam Smith (1791 [1976], 79, 87–91) suggestively remarked, however, that the private demand for punishment is independent of any consideration of social advantage. (See also Shoup 1964, Thurow 1970, and D. Friedman 2000 on potential conflicts between efficiency and equity.) Ehrlich (1982) permits goals such as retribution to be reflected in the social-cost function, with the degree of retribution related to the number of unpunished offenders and to the severity of their crimes (also see Miceli 1991). However, such grafts rarely seem to capture the considerations that nonconsequentialists deem important. In contrast to economic models, Kantian inspired retributive ("just deserts") models and their cousins (e.g., the restorative theory of Cragg 1992; the Rawlsian-inspired rectification theory of Adler 1991; the restitutive theory of Barnett 1977 and 1998, chaps. 8, 10, 11) generally argue that punishment can and must be justified independent of the consequences as measured in a social-cost function (Duff 1986, 1996). Economic and retributive models have difficulty rationalizing certain policies that most modern penal systems have adopted or at least acknowledged: economic prescriptions appear inconsistent with constitutional constraints on cruel and unusual punishments, and classical retributive models specify punishments that may be insufficient for deterrence. Constitutional contractarian models applied to punishment can rationalize independent constraints on social-cost minimization (Avio 1993a) and will be implicitly assumed in what follows.

Prisons versus Fines

Prisons provide protection services to society by incarcerating criminals. In principle, incarceration might be replaced or supplemented by a cheaper system of fines or corporal punishments or both, which have been the sanctions of choice throughout most of human history. But constitutional constraints in modern democracies restrict corporal punishments, and the limited wealth of most offenders relative to the social value of the harm they create renders sole reliance on fines inefficient (Garoupa 1997; Polinsky and Shavell 1984; Shavell 1985, 1987a, 1987b). Moreover, Levitt (1997) notes that the authorities may not even know the wealth level of offenders and may be unable to distinguish between individuals with different subjective disutilities of prison terms. This latter fact is important because the threat of imprisonment must ultimately lie behind any fine. Because the typical criminal has a relatively low disutility of prison term, "the fine must be low relative to the jail sentence to be incentive compatible" (Levitt 1997, 181). But relatively low fines will induce other types of agents to become offenders. Nevertheless, a case can be made that fines are underutilized in Western societies, although less so in Europe than in the United States. Benson (1996) favors a system of fines as restitution for victims. He argues that the coerced supply of offender labor services may overcome the wealth constraint (at a cost), and the incentive for victims to cooperate in the prosecution of offenders increases the effectiveness of the police and courts. Conversely, the promise of fines as restitution may lead to overzealous prosecution by victims. David Friedman (1999) makes the case against efficient punishment succinctly. "In a world of efficient punishments, somebody gets most of what the convicted defendant loses. It is in that somebody's interest to convict defendants whether or not they are guilty" (S262). For the remainder of this essay, the relative efficiency of incarceration as a criminal sanction is assumed.


Excerpted from Changing the Guard by Alexander Tabarrok. Copyright © 2003 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword Charles H. Logan,
1 Introduction Alexander Tabarrok,
2 The Economics of Prisons Kenneth L. Avio,
3 Correctional Privatization in America: An Assessment of Its Historical Origins, Present Status, and Future Prospects Charles W. Thomas,
4 Prison Privatization and Public Policy Samuel Jan Brakel and Kimberly Ingersoll Gaylord,
5 Do We Want the Production of Prison Services to Be More "Efficient"? Bruce L. Benson,
About the Authors,

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