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The Drain of Public Prison Systems and the Role of Privatization:
A Case Study of State Correctional Systems

(Released February 2010)

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  by David W. Miller  


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At their basic level, prisons function as a place to both punish and rehabilitate offenders. However, due to rising populations and rehabilitation program cuts, prisons may look more like storage units than places where prisoners receive treatment for their criminal behavior. As such, it becomes difficult to measure the effectiveness of prisons to rehabilitate the offender. Recidivism rates have been a well-established way to measure the success of rehabilitating prisoners, and, even in the era of punishment over rehabilitation, can be used to measure the success of prisons in treating offenders. Several studies note that recidivism rates remain high for public-funded prisons. Because of these findings, and based upon case studies and narratives, a common knowledge approach has been to assume that private prisons can lower recidivism. Indeed, according to CCA (2003), prisoners in private prisons were 27% less likely to commit an offense after being released from the private prison. However, this study was conducted by the private organization itself, and thus results could be biased.

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Education can help prevent recidivism

Despite the importance of using recidivism rates to determine which system rehabilitates prisoners more effectively, very few comparative studies between public and private prisons have been conducted. By 2003, only 3 studies had compared public and private prisons based upon recidivism rates (Austin & Coventry, 2001). By 2008, the number only increased by one. Thus, Spivak (2008) emphasizes that the lack of empirical studies to measure recidivism rates for offenders serving time in privately funded prisons makes it difficult to draw any substantial comparative conclusions. To effectively compare recidivism rates, more studies need to be conducted. The following summarizes these four studies, one of which includes a follow-up analysis of the data with an extended timeline.

Lanza-Kaduce et al. compared recidivism rates between male offenders released from minimum to medium level security facilities in Florida. The analysis compared half from public and half from private facilities and was conducted based upon four recidivism traits: subsequent arrest, felony conviction, technical violations, and imprisonment for a new offense. Data were collected for 12 months and results were based upon matched variables of prisoner and prison characteristics. The study discovered lower recidivism rates on all four factors for inmates released from private prisons versus public prisons: (1) arrests 10% (private) versus 19% (public), (2) convicted 6% (private) versus 10% (public), (3) technical violations 17% (private) versus 24% (public), and (4) imprisoned for new violations 10% (private) versus 14% (public). Two years later, Lanza-Kaduce et al. re-examined the same data, but extended the time period to 48 months after release. Although they discovered lower recidivism rates among private versus public offenders, the results were only marginally statistically significant (Florida Department, 2003). This finding in and of itself suggests that time trumps the type of prison, but is still encouraging for criminal justice administrators who are interested in finding ways to decrease recidivism rates.

Farabee and Knight (2007) hypothesized that brief exposures to prison did not have an impact on recidivism rates, and thus only included inmates who had served 6+ months in a public or private facilities. Similar to Lanza-Kaduce et al, they examined offenders from minimum to medium facilities, but also included close custody inmates, i.e. maximum security offenders. A further distinction was the sample size. While Lanza-Kaduce studied 396 males, Farabee and Knight compared 4,912 adult men, 612 adult women, and 1,945 juvenile offenders (public prison inmates) to 2,341 adult men, 983 adult female, and 314 juvenile offenders (private prison inmates) based upon similar socio-demographic variables. Also unlike Lanza-Kaduce, Farabee and Knight only explored recidivism rates based upon arrest for a new offense and conviction for a new arrest. They examined three years worth of data and found no statistically significant difference between adult men or juvenile men, but did discover a significant difference for adult/juvenile females. Women serving time in private prisons were 25% less likely to re-offend, and 34% less likely to be re-imprisoned. Here again, time spent away from prison could play a larger role than the type of prison.

An analysis of an in-patient substance abuse program for offenders discovered a statistically significant difference between offenders who attended the program versus those who did not. Eleven percent of offenders who went through the privately managed facility were re-arrested within a year, while 21% from a comparable public facility were re-arrested within a year.

Despite these studies, others have noted no statistical difference between public and private inmates. For instance, Bales (2005) analyzed re-offense arrest and imprisonment rates during 1995 to 2001 for a large sample of adult men, women, and juvenile offenders and concluded that statistical evidence did not support policy that urged more privatization of prisons in Florida due to lower recidivism rates for private versus public released prisoners. Bales urges other measures, such as cost-effectiveness, to be used to verify the benefit of privately operated prisons over public ones. In short, more research needs to be conducted before a final verdict can be made. Still, the above studies do suggest that private prisons lead to lower recidivism rates for adult males, adult females, and juvenile delinquents for the first year upon release from a private prison, and have a significant impact for women offenders over an extended length of time. Since prisons are not involved in long term rehabilitation of the prisoner, one way to increase recidivism over time is to link ex-offenders with follow-up treatment services. This could lower recidivism rates even further and for a longer period of time following prison discharge.

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