Segal is the Reason Public Policy
Institute director of Privatization
Prison Reform: Privatization
Corrections System is so Rife with Problems that Drastic Change is Needed
[Geoffrey F. Segal] 3/5/04
To put it nicely, it has been a less than
a stellar year for the California corrections system. Just
consider a few of the lowlights in the first two months of
A guard at Corcoran State Prison was just arrested on suspicion
of conspiring with an inmate in a murder- for-hire scheme.
Earlier this month, at the same prison, guards watching the
Super Bowl ignored a 60-year-old inmate's screams for hours.
The inmate, on dialysis, died in his cell as most of the blood
poured from his body.
court monitor recommended perjury charges against California's
chief and accused correctional officers
of living by a "code of silence" that encourages cover-ups.
In January, two boys used bed sheets to hang themselves in their
cells at a juvenile prison.
Oh, and there was that scathing report accusing the California
Youth Authority of keeping young inmates in small cages and locked
down 23 hours a day.
"It is a priority of my administration to reform the California
prison system and bring to justice those individuals who do it
dishonor by their misconduct," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
For serious reforms, he'll have to take on one of the most powerful
forces in state politics, the California Correctional Peace Officers
rash of prison problems isn't new or isolated. For years, the
corrections system has been plagued by
violence, cover-ups, abuse and mistreatment of inmates. (Remember
reports about the "booty bandit" and the gladiator
fights staged by prison guards back in 2000?) But the influential
prison guard union has always managed to block efforts to bring
any measure of transparency and accountability to the department.
Not only has the CCPOA blocked all efforts to incorporate responsibility,
competition and private prisons into the system, but it's negotiated
a steady stream of pay increases in the process. The governor
must change all that, starting with competition, which would
improve the quality of services, restrain costs, and bring more
transparency and accountability to the entire correctional system.
Think about it: Had the various incidents and mistreatment occurred
at a privately operated prison, a chorus of voices would argue
that someone must be held responsible. The likely suggestion
would be that the private company be fired. And the suggestion
would be heeded - if a private prison permitted these events,
heads would roll across the state like tumbleweeds.
At public prisons, the state Department of Corrections monitors
itself. And we've seen the results.
By shifting to private prison companies and putting the government
in the role as independent monitor with the power to fire poor-performing
companies, states have a more powerful hand in making significant
improvements. The government monitor watches the private watchmen,
which is much more effective than the prison guards policing
Moreover, since private companies are trying to attract new
customers and retain contracts, they have more incentive to provide
high-quality service, a motivation government-run facilities
do not have. If you are a private company selling your services,
escapes, inmate beatings and riots look extremely bad on a resume.
simply launches a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the system,
probably get recommendations but little else.
Recent events at public prisons across the country confirm this.
After the escape of the infamous "Texas 7" in 2001,
a blue-ribbon panel was convened. Yet no significant changes
in Texas policy occurred.
the California corrections system needs serious reforms. While
the immediate focus should be on bringing the guards to
justice, we also need to take a serious look at the way prisons
operate and explore new methods to ensure heightened accountability
and prevent future incidents. The state's multitude of prison
woes suggests we can't wait much longer to bring profound change
to California's correctional system.
This piece first appeared in the Orange County Register
2004 Reason Public Policy Institute