Editorial roundup

A major blow for private prisons

The federal government’s decision to break most of its ties to the private prison industry has echoes in Mississippi.

In explaining last week its decision to phase out its use of private prisons, the U.S. Justice Department gave two reasons: a declining inmate population and greater problems with safety and security at private prisons.

Those are the same reasons Mississippi’s Department of Corrections has given for cutting back on its use of private prisons, from six at one time to four by next month.

Mississippi has one other compelling reason for the cutbacks: corruption. Most of the graft that brought down former Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and has produced criminal indictments against a handful of his cronies was specifically related to contracts awarded to companies that either operate prisons or provide services to them.

Private prisons boomed during the 1980s and 1990s because prison populations were growing rapidly and state and federal facilities were running out of room. The popularity of private prisons was also fueled by the privatization movement, which believed, with reasonable confidence, that it could provide traditional government services at a much lower cost than the government could do so itself.

The problem was, though, that the prison business model required a steady supply of product — that is, inmates — to keep the profits churning. Private prisons amassed huge lobbying efforts and became major campaign donors, all in the pursuit of encouraging federal and state lawmakers to put more offenders behind bars for longer stretches of time. Not only did this result in huge cost increases for taxpayers, but it took a toll on society, particularly low-income minority communities, who saw a larger percentage of adults, especially males, in these neighborhoods being shuttled off to prison for nonviolent, lower-level felonies.

The pendulum is swinging back, and the federal government and the states, including Mississippi, are getting smarter about crime. They are coming to realize that prison cells are very expensive real estate and should be reserved for violent and habitual offenders who pose the greatest risks to the law-abiding public. Fewer prisoners translates into less need for private alternatives.

On top of that, private prisons have gotten into trouble for trying to maximize profits by cutting corners, which has produced conditions that are less safe than the norm.

Don’t expect, though, the private operators to accept these revenue losses without reacting. There is huge money at stake for them and their shareholders, who saw the prison companies’ stock prices fall by almost half following the Justice Department’s announcement. If the federal government’s business dries up, the prison operators are going to try to make it up at the state level.

Watch carefully who in Mississippi gets campaign contributions from the prison industry and how much pressure current Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher gets to back off on some cutbacks. Just because Epps and his fellow schemers have been caught doesn’t mean the conditions that led to their graft have disappeared.

Tim Kalich
Editor and Publisher
Greenwood Commonwealth