Honolulu Advertiser Second Opinion column by Cliff Slater

August 2, 1996



Hawaii needs private prisons

Recently Governor Cayetano sent 300 inmates to a private prison in Texas. By all accounts their treatment has been good and our cost per prisoner day is less than half what it costs to keep the remaining prisoners here in Hawaii.

On top of the excessive prison costs in Hawaii, our treatment of prisoners is so poor that the state operates under a court order requiring improved prison conditions. In addition, we  are so short of prison space we have to release prisoners early to make room for those newly convicted which increases criminal activity. Smart taxpayers are asking why we haven't shipped all our prisoners to Texas.

Good question.

The right answer is that we should house them in private prisons here in Hawaii—for three reasons. First, the recidivism rate—the rate at which released prisoners return to crime—is less when they remain close to their families. Second, the money spent both building and operating private prisons here would stay in the Hawaii economy. Third, the record of private prison operators is far superior to that Hawaii; not one of them operates under a court order like ours.

Private prison operators are now offering to build prison facilities here. They say they can house prisoners in Hawaii at a daily rate comparable to that being charged in Texas. That rate even includes the cost of prison construction so our local taxpayers do not have to worry about where the construction money would come from. This means that we could house all our criminals for the full term of their sentence and keep them off the streets for a total cost less than what it now costs us.

Modern private prison operators know they have to develop reputations as good quality and efficient providers otherwise they will not get the business. This attitude has led in just ten years to 65,000 private prison inmates in 18 states. The industry is growing 35% annually.

Interestingly, these private operators have found that stress in either prisoners or guards lead to higher costs. Accordingly, they provide conditions that minimize stress. At facilities such as the Correction Corporation of America's 1,500-bed Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, educational and work opportunities are available to inmates, they encourage family visits and there is no overcrowding. This is why prisoners and their families, together with us taxpayers, would benefit from private prisons.

Of course, as in any contractual matter, the contract itself is critically important. Whether you want to pay prisoners 16¢ an hour or $1.25 an hour or whether candy bars are cheap or expensive should all be in a contract. And the State must specify the quality and cost of all services provided to inmates. It is obviously far more expensive to teach prisoners computer technology than to break rocks.

Contrast private operators with our State administrators who seem more concerned with convincing elected officials to part with more of the taxpayers' money—not less. Do we have a brutality problem? It is because we don't have enough money to hire more and better guards. Do we have a recidivism problem? It is because we do not have enough money to hire prison educators. The net result has been escalating costs and, since management is not their focus, declining quality.

What we all want from prisons is sufficient capacity with adequate care for prisoners that, a) leads to a lower rate of return to crime, and b) is accomplished at the lowest possible cost. Private prisons in Hawaii will do this. It is an idea whose time has now come.