Private Prisons: Costly or Cost-Effective?

May 19, 2011  |  

By Charlotte Young

Politicians who continue to promise constituents that they will reduce budget constraints with cuts to state agencies are looking to the prison system to make good on their word, mainly by taking inmate out of state prisons and placing them in private prisons.

In the past, states have looked to private prisons to help ease state costs, trusting in the misconception that the private sector will always be more efficient and less costly. But recent research completed by Arizona’s Department of Corrections reveals that this is not always the case.

In recent years, the number of inmates in private prisons has stagnated, and some states have reduced total prison populations. But now, Arizona, Ohio and Florida, among other states, are planning to add thousands more to private prisons in an effort to save on state budgets, according to the New York Times.

From their research, the Arizona Department of Corrections found that private prison inmates can cost the same or up to $1600 more per year.

Private prisons tend to “cherry-pick,” meaning they only take on healthy, less risky prisoners that cost less to house. Prisoners with mental or health problems are sent back to the state prisons.

State prisons are required to provide healthcare to inmates and these costs “average up to $2.44 a day more for state inmates”—that’s about a third higher than the private prisons.

Additionally, costs for minimum-security inmates are 2.6 percent more in state prisons, which is only about $1.39 a day. Once additional state expenses are taken out, it’s only about 3 cents more a day.

States preparing to cut costs through the prison system may, after taking a second look at the math, find that the financial costs are not at significant levels. Politicians looking to renew support or gain votes may need to consider another solution to save money.

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