The privatization of correctional facilities is a godsend when used appropriately, but it can also make a bad situation even worse, Gary DeLand, director of the Utah Department of Corrections, said Friday.
Deland said it's impossible to be completely for or against privatizing correctional facilities because of the many variables involved.DeLand and Rep. Howard Niel-son, R-Utah, were two of the key speakers at the University of Utah's seminar on privatization held in Park City Friday.
"First, we have to make sure we're all speaking the same language. What degree of privatization are we talking about. Total privatization or partial?" DeLand said.
Many institutions contract with private companies to run some of their programs, such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation and medical programs, he said. Others contract the entire facility. Utah is one of nine states that contracts some prison programs.
"To me, what works best for the taxpayers is what is important. It's not cost effective for the state to run a number of smaller treatment programs at the prison, so we contract private industries that can do it more cheaply," he said. The maintenance and mental health programs at the Utah State prison are both run by private companies.
But DeLand said totally privatizing a correctional facility is another matter. He said the effectiveness of privatization depends on the facility. For example, it may be a good idea to privatize "ma and pa" jails in small Utah counties.
"These jails just aren't effective. There are more staff than inmates. They can't afford to run these jails right and they can't afford to run them wrong," he said.
He said a private company would be able to combine several small jails into one large correctional facility. He said if the counties tried to combine the jails they would waste time and money because they would have to consult one another before making any decisions.
Private companies can also mobilize their staffs more efficiently than the state can, DeLand said. "Their prison designs are more staff intensive. More than 93 percent of the money spent on a facility is spent on staffing."
However, DeLand said privatization can be disasterous. "The state loses control. What's to stop the private company from raising the cost per day for an inmate after a few years?" The state is also liable for its prisoners, regardless of whether they reside in private or state facilities.
Privatizing correctional facilities can also mean firing state employees. "When we privatized our maintenance program, the contract said the company had to accept the old employees. You can tell the contractors they have to play with your players or you can go the extreme and allow them to take over," DeLand said.
Nielson said a state could use privatization as a means of ridding itself of its corrections problems. Private companies also often try to save money by "cutting corners," which means less effective facilities, he said.
In addition, Nielson said privatization results in conflicts over the amount of authority guards and staff members can exercise. "Whatever restrictions are placed on the public guards should be placed on the private ones," he said.
"If the objective is to save the state money, and there is control and safeguards, it's a good idea. But if the private companies will simply pick the easy problems and leave the hard ones to the state, it's not."
Although Utah does contract some of its prison programs, DeLand said it's unlikely the state will move to total privatization. "I can count the number of privatized maximum security facilities in the U.S. on both hands."
Nielson said in Washington, D.C., legislation regarding privatization tends to "die a quick death."