Monday, November 27, 2006

Private Prisons Raise Big Issues for State

An excellent editorial from the Montgomery Advertiser

The facts are indisputable. Alabama has a serious overcrowding problem in its prison system, which has about twice the number of inmates its facilities were designed to handle. Solutions to the problem, however, are decidedly in dispute.

One proposed solution -- the expanded use of private prisons -- raises some fundamental issues for the state. These issues should not be ignored or discounted, nor should the debate focus solely on fiscal questions.

In a study by the Alabama Policy Institute, researcher Kirk A. Johnson makes the points that private-sector concerns can produce prison bed space ΓΏ
more quickly and less expensively than the state can. That is probably true, but it misses a key point about incarceration.

When the state deprives an individual of liberty -- justifiably, when a crime against it has been committed -- it takes a somber, serious action. Few actions of government have greater impact.

In so doing, it also assumes responsibility for the individual now in its custody. Note the name of the state agency responsible for the prisons. It's not called the Department of Incarceration. It's called the Department of Corrections, and in that name is the clear implication that those sentenced to prison are not simply to be locked up, but are also to be subject to efforts at rehabilitation in preparation for a return to society.

This is a solemn obligation that accompanies the act of incarceration. Remember that very few inmates die in prison. Most will eventually be released to rejoin society. How well they are prepared to do that has enormous implications for the future.

With a private prison, inherent conflicts exist. A private prison is a for-profit operation, of course, established by its investors in hopes of making money. The profit motive is a great asset in a free-market economy, but its virtues are markedly less appealing when turned to a governmental responsibility.

As long as profit is the goal, there will be an incentive to cut corners, which in an ordinary business might not be dangerous. In a prison, however, it raises real concerns about the safety of the public, as well as that of inmates and prison personnel.

As for the education, training, counseling and other programs consistent with the word Corrections in the department's name, these are often missing in private prisons, making them little more than warehouses for inmates. That may plug a short-term need, but surely it can have no long-term benefit.

Some things simply are the responsibility of government. Prisons -- and the people in them -- are good examples.

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