"Can Privatization Kill?" is the headline over a New York Times op-ed piece decrying the privatization of prisons and border guards. The usual rule applies that if the headline is phrased as a question, the answer is probably "no." The article does do the service of highlighting what seems to be a new campaign against privately operated prisons. The Times article reports, "When Arizona's notorious SB 1070 immigration bill was passed, 30 out of 36 co-sponsors had received donations from private prison companies or their lobbyists."
This Sunday, Fareed Zakaria's show on CNN had Mr. Zakaria asserting:
In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons versus $5.7 billion on higher education.
Since 1980, California has built one college campus. It has built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,767.00 per student per year. It spends about $50,000.00 per inmate per year. Why is this happening?
Well, prisons are a big business now. They are privately run. They have powerful lobbyists and they have bought most state politicians in America. Meanwhile, we are bankrupting our states and creating a vast underclass of prisoners who will never be equipped for productive lives.
The point about education spending and prison spending in California was already addressed here earlier. But Mr. Zakaria's charge that private prison lobbyists "have bought most state politicians in America" is an inflammatory charge. If Mr. Zakaria has evidence for it, he should produce it. If he doesn't, he should withdraw the charge and apologize to the state politicians whose integrity he impugned by making the charge.
What's more, Mr. Zakaria makes it sound as if the private prison operators are the only ones lobbying or buying politicians. That is far from the truth of the matter, however. In fact the government workers who work in the government-operated prisons are themselves a powerful lobbying and political force. As a 2009 National Public Radio piece put it:
In three decades, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. The union has contributed millions of dollars to support "three strikes" and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions. It donated $1 million to Wilson after he backed the three strikes law.
And the result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.
I think, by the way, that the higher education institutions have lobbyists too, and probably more of the state legislators are alumni of State U. than of the State Correctional Institution.
None of this is to suggest that private prisons are any kind of panacea. But government-run prisons and border patrol agencies have their own problems. Both the Times article and Mr. Zakaria's comments seem to suggest a kind of reflexive opposition to private involvement, rather than a more results-oriented approach that would judge these organizations by their performance rather than by their ownership structure.