The New York Times recently published a three-part investigative piece about privately operated New Jersey “halfway houses” — a term that usually describes small, closely supervised residences where people making the transition from prison to the outside world get drug treatment, job placement and other services.
Part 1 covered the connections between New Jersey legislators and Community Education Centers (CEC), the organization that runs many of the state’s halfway houses. Part 2 focused on a single troubled CEC facility, Delaney Hall, where one or two low-wage, unarmed workers typically supervise each unit of 170 inmates, with robbery, sexual assault, and gang activity so bad that inmates regularly ask to be returned to prison — where they feel safer. Part 3 covered a gruesome murder made possible by unchecked gang activity, inadequately trained staff and a culture of fear and compliance among nongang affiliated inmates.
Approximately 5,100 inmates have escaped from privatized halfway houses in New Jersey since 2005, often during work-release programs. Some of them had committed horrific crimes. This raises questions about the screening process and the reasons for moving prisoners to halfway houses run by contractors.
The promise of privatized prisons is that they are cheaper for the government than building and staffing its own facilities because the contractor operates within a fixed price and assumes the risk of rising costs. In practice, the principle cost saving comes from staffing the prison with nonunion employees who do not enjoy civil service benefits. Whatever the contractor can save on the total wage bill goes straight to the bottom line, which creates an incentive to skimp on both numbers and qualifications of the guards and supervisors.
The same incentive operates for the other elements of confinement, i.e., food and medical care. The consequences of inadequate security rebound on local government in dealing with increased expenditures resulting from the need to track down escapees, investigate crimes, and suppress disturbances often organized in protest of subhuman conditions. In addition to the incentive to skimp on costs, imprisonment for profit creates a perverse economic and political incentive to imprison for the benefit of the custodians.
CEC operates 17 facilities in Texas, many of which have been in the news for noncompliance with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards regulations as well as reports of guard corruption and the provision of subpar basic services to inmates: nonfunctional toilets, sinks and lights in cells and common areas, and the failure of a warden to obtain the basic state certification required for jailers. Several of CEC’s facilities have also been plagued by reports of contraband smuggling and bribery involving guards. In December 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement pulled its detainees from a CEC Detention Center, citing inadequate medical care, food and access to legal assistance and worship services.
Imprisonment for crime is one of the core government functions, and the Eighth Amendment requires the government to provide prisoners with adequate food, medical care and security from the violence of their fellow prisoners. These constitutional responsibilities and the problems with privatization perhaps can be dealt with, but only through contract provisions that prescribe the conditions of confinement in detail and hold the contractors financially responsible for all escapes, assaults and other failures of custody.
The Legislature should begin with looking into charges by Bronislaw Szulc, a former senior state official who says he was told “not to go after things so hard” when he filed reports to the Corrections Department documenting drug use, violence and lax security at a facility in Trenton. Current and former workers there said they falsified records to make it appear that inmates had received social services that were never provided.
What was discovered about prison privatization in New Jersey is not an isolated instance. It is simply a glimpse of a pervasive and growing reality of the corrupt relationship between prison privatization and patronage that is undermining government across the U.S. The fact that ending privatized prisons would not end prison rapes and the bribing of guards is no justification for continuing privatization which until now has not worked at least in many instances. Whether it can work with the above described contractual provisions and financial incentives remains to be seen.