Private Prison Break

Posted Aug. 19, 2010, at 7:49 p.m.

This fall, candidates for state and national office are likely to sound the familiar refrain, “Government should be run like a business.” But sometimes business practices are not the right match for enterprises undertaken in the public interest. Take prisons, for example.

The escape of three men from an Arizona corrections facility, and the subsequent cross-country run of one of the prisoners and his apparent fiancee has dominated news in recent days. Police allege this latter-day Bonnie and Clyde, who were captured Thursday night, were a team in the escape. One relevant detail to the story is that the prison was privately run. In an effort to reduce state spending, Arizona contracted the operation of some of its prisons to private business. Other states have done the same.

In theory, it’s not a bad idea. Some functions government undertakes might be better provided by private enterprises, and might be done so at less cost. But with a private business running something like a prison, the consequences of cutting a few corners to move a few more dollars to the bottom line can be great.

The Kingman, Ariz., prison complex from which the three men escaped is operated by Management and Training Corp., which boasts on its website that its facilities are “safe and secure for inmates, staff and community.” Except the facility from which the convicted murderers escaped was not as secure for the community as it might have been.

The three men passed through an unlocked cellblock door without setting off an alarm, walked to the perimeter fence, where the alleged woman accomplice’s car was parked. The car is visible in security camera recordings. The woman tossed wire cutters over the fence, the men cut through, setting off an alarm, but no officer responded. The men were not reported missing until five hours after prison staff last saw them. Prison officials waited an hour before notifying the county sheriff, and more than two hours before notifying the state department of corrections.

“We have great concerns that there was laxness on the part of security staff,” Charles Ryan, director of the Arizona Corrections Department, told The Associated Press. Three years ago, two convicted murderers escaped from another privately run prison in Arizona.

Some on the political left have tried to connect the private prison business in Arizona with that state’s new immigration law, suggesting the law would be a boon to the companies operating the prisons, particularly one charged with holding federal prisoners. That link is tenuous. A more important question the Arizona escape case should raise centers on the downsides of privatizing some services.

The search for the escaped prisoners may cost millions of dollars, not to mention the threat to public safety.

While no breach of policy has yet been shown, private businesses — whether they be prisons or gift stores — can save money by leaving jobs unfilled or cutting back on staff hours. Lawmakers must be wary about privatization of some services to save taxpayer money. It might get more — or less — than it bargained for.

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