Political showboating abounded on the Hill amid a government shutdown with the confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee William Barr. Despite having served in the same position from 1991-1993 under President George H.W. Bush, Barr finds himself subject to left-field questions from the fringes. A particular line of questioning from Senator Kamala Harris stood out as she requested that Barr pledge to end the use of private prisons based on an Obama-era Department of Justice report that Barr had not yet read.
Senator Harris’s creative partisan interpretation of the report is a deeper issue of concern than the report itself. At the root of Senator Harris’s questioning is an assumption under which Democrats often operate, that public-private partnerships are inefficient at best, exploitative at worst, and bad business all around.
While serving as mayor of Cincinnati, I worked on expanding public-private partnerships to enhance not just efficiency but the effectiveness of government services. A leading example of partnering with private companies to serve the community is former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith. In the early 1990s, facing soaring costs and inefficient services, Goldsmith offered municipal waste workers the chance to privatize and bid on government contracts. The result was wildly successful. Goldsmith brought to bear on the city of Indianapolis a valuable lesson in economics and the free market: entrepreneurs will deliver a better and more effective product or service than the public monopoly status quo.
How then does this play out in concert with Senator Harris’s line of questioning?
Government contractors – such as private prisons, charter schools, and waste management services – are often vilified for factors out of their control. As a government contractor, the provider is not privy to the decision making process but simply responsible for fulfilling a contract’s guidelines.
Last month I read here a piece by guest contributor Liberty Vittert titled, “The cold hard facts about America’s private prison system.” While the title is catchy, the “cold hard facts” presented in this opinion piece were misleading and at times simply incorrect.
Vittert asserts that the private prison industry began “booming in the 1980s,” but the partnership as we know it today came about in response to overcrowding and congressional mandates when the Bureau of Prisons in 1997 began contracting with private providers to house some of the federal inmate population. Vittert’s misconception that the private prison industry handpicks inmates is a common one. Prisons, public or private, do not take over until the gavel falls and the individual is walked to the doors of the facility dictated by the court. In reality, inmates are assigned to facilities based in part on the length of their sentence and the level of security deemed necessary by the court. Contractors in particular have little to no say in their populations.
As pressure from lawmakers such as Senator Harris, opinion leaders, and activists has increased for ending the use of these contractors and divesting from their stock, in December I toured several facilities operated by one of the country’s largest government contractors. What I witnessed inside the facilities was vastly different from what the mainstream news reports. Like other entrepreneurs delivering a service monopolized by public entities, the entire culture came across as interested not just in doing things more efficiently, but more effectively. The disposition of guards, counselors, and inmates was one of hopefulness. The culture spoke to a belief in the ability of inmates to change behavior and live successful, non-criminal lives after release. Even conversation with folks resigned to being in for a longer haul had a sense of meaning and the entire environment is one conducive to valued human beings. During my time as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and in the years since, I have toured and explored a number of detention and corrections centers in the United States and worldwide. I can tell you with conviction, the private corrections facilities in this country are not the pits of despair the critics and media fictionalize them to be.
Vittert’s claim that Americans may be unwittingly “bankrolling” these companies is mere Chicken Little hysterics. Many retirement systems, public and private, small and large, have expansive portfolios invested in an array of companies and industries. The fiduciaries managing those funds, which lifelong public servants rely on in their well-deserved retirements, have a responsibility to steward investment funds in such a way as to yield the highest returns for their investors. This is a simple matter of fulfilling a fiduciary responsibility for hundreds of thousands of investors.
Understanding the causes of government outsourcing to contractors is key when discussing the benefits these contractors provide. Again, Vittert’s suggestion that a “cycle of lobbying, donating money to campaigns, and getting more prisoners with longer sentences” is the genesis for the private prison industry as we see it today is a fallacy. Corrections contractors were called to the scene to lend a hand to the overwhelmed public monopoly. Private facilities are not the disease but a treatment for the broken criminal justice system in which they operate.
Private prisons offer the programming, training, and post-release care to reduce recidivism, better serving the men and women who are fulfilling their sentence and better serving our communities when they are released back into them, which accounts for approximately 95 percent of inmates. The FIRST STEP Act, in addition to other long overdue and valuable criminal justice reforms, allocates $75 million per year for five years to develop more of these proven programs across the system.
As the numbers continue to roll in about degrees earned, training completed, and inmates prepared for life on the outside, I believe there’s enough empirical data to suggest the competition between public and private has been good for the system overall. As I witnessed on my visit to their facilities, the government contractor is a leading provider of successful rehabilitative services their public counterpart does not offer. Successful evidence-based programs like GEO Group’s Continuum of Care are rare for now, but I hope that GEO’s investment in these programs on the cutting edge will open a wide path for other providers to follow.
In the meantime, let us agree that the hostility leveled at qualified nominees during confirmation hearings and the headline grabbing, punchy one-liners are not serving the American people. It is time that leaders like Senator Harris work to unify our fracturing country, focus on reopening the government, and address the true issues that plague our nation.
Ken Blackwell is a Senior Fellow for Human Rights and Constitutional Governance at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. He is a former Mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio.