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Think tanks wrap-up III

Feb. 26, 2003 at 6:22 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the third of three wrap-ups for Feb. 26.


The Mackinac Center for Public Policy

(MCPP is a non-partisan research and educational organization devoted to improving the quality of life for all Michigan citizens by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions through the objective analysis of issues. MCPP seeks to broaden the policy past the belief that government intervention should be the standard solution for various issues, and offers a comprehensive approach encompassing voluntary associations, business, community and family, as well as government.)

MIDLAND, Mich. -- Lock in savings with prison privatization

By John R. La Plante and Mr. Lawrence W. Reed

States across the country have been grappling with how to operate their prison systems as efficiently and effectively as possible. One option growing in popularity is outsourcing prison management.

In Texas, Tennessee and Michigan, private firms lowered the cost of running corrections systems. The idea should be further explored in the Great Lakes State, since taxpayers, state officials and prisoners themselves could derive tremendous benefits.

The Michigan Department of Corrections, known as MDOC, is responsible for administering criminal penalties to 117,700 individuals who have been convicted of some crime under Michigan law. It operates 42 prisons and 11 camps and monitors parolees at "half-way" houses through electronic tethering, for which prisoners wear an ankle bracelet fitted with a transmitter whose signal is monitored by officials from a distance.

The MDOC also contracts with counties to house certain inmates. In fiscal year 2001, Michigan paid more than $17 million to house some 4,700 prisoners in county jails rather than house them in the state's own prisons.

Operating the department is not inexpensive. The MDOC requires nearly 19,000 employees -- half of whom are guards -- and $1.7 billion to operate annually.

Although Michigan has not engaged in privatization on a large enough scale to produce the kinds of savings potentially available, it has experimented with the idea with good results. In 1999, the state contracted with a private firm, Wackenhut Corrections Corp., to build and operate a correctional facility in Baldwin.

Opened in 1999, the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility has space for 450 men under the age of 20. The MDOC estimates that the facility saves between $6,975 and $19,125 per day based on comparisons with similar state-run prisons. This comes to between $2.5 million and $6.9 million annually -- and that's just for one facility.

Such savings aren't uncommon. An analysis of 28 studies of prison privatization found that virtually all private prisons save money, with costs typically running between 5 percent and 15 percent less than the cost of government prisons. In addition, the May 2002 Harvard Law Review references three recent studies that found cost savings from 3.75 percent to 14 percent with no decrease in the quality of services.

One of those studies found that private prison construction costs in Florida were 24 percent lower than they would have been had the state built its own facilities.

Cost savings aren't the only reason government uses privatization for building and operating correctional facilities. Privatization also:

-- Relieves overcrowding. Governments can obtain increased inmate housing capacity quicker by contracting with the private sector. Private firms in Pennsylvania, for example, built a prison in two years less than it took the state to build a similar prison nearby -- and for $38 million less -- while saving the county in which it was built $1.5 million in annual debt costs. In Houston, a new Immigration and Naturalization Service detention facility was expected to cost $26,000 per bed and take 30 months through normal government construction procedures. A private firm did the job for $14,000 per bed in less than six months.

-- Improves quality. States need not sacrifice quality when they use contractors. A review of 18 prison quality studies by the Reason Foundation in 2002 found that 16 of the privately run prisons performed at least as well as government-run prisons. By some measures the private prisons do better. The American Corrections Association is a private, non-profit group that is also, in part, a private regulatory body.

In order to earn ACA's accreditation, which is the corrections equivalent of the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," a prison must meet guidelines that include staff training, fiscal controls, food service, sanitation, and safety and emergency procedures. The ACA maintains 19 unique manuals of standards, each of which applies to a different type of correctional facility. While only 10 percent of America's 48,000 government prison facilities are accredited by the ACA, an impressive 44 percent of privately run facilities are so accredited.

If this weren't sufficiently compelling, Harvard Law Review also looked at studies of public and private prisons to determine whether the quality of prison services suffered when they were delivered privately. According to the authors, "... (N)one of the more rigorous studies finds quality at private prisons lower than quality at public prisons on average, and most find private prisons outscoring public prisons on most quality indicators."

-- Fosters innovation. Private firms can offer states more flexibility in planning and designing prisons and prison operations. Because they are "outsiders" conditioned by the profit motive to come up with innovative ideas as a matter of survival, they are better able to think "outside the box."

For instance, a private prison administrator discovered that the Virginia Department of Corrections maintained expensive warehouses for food out of fear that deliveries would not reach prisons. This was a long-standing custom begun when food was delivered to prisons by pack mules. The system simply had no motive to change until a private firm was hired to save the state money. In Florida, privately run prisons have introduced more advanced locking systems, a greater use of camera surveillance, and a host of other innovations.

While Michigan has only experimented with prison privatization, other states have done much more and with great success. In New Mexico, for example, 44 percent of state and federal inmates are housed in facilities under private management. In Oregon the number is 43 percent. By comparison, only 0.9 percent of Michigan inmates are incarcerated under a private management system.

No state has privatized the management of its entire correctional system. One state, Tennessee, came close to being the first but was thwarted by political pressure to retreat from outsourcing in 1998. Tennessee expected to save more than 22 percent annually -- or $100 million -- by contracting with Corrections Corp. of America, a private, for-profit prison management business. If Michigan were to contract with and shave just 15 percent from its corrections budget, the state would see annual savings of $240 million.

Michigan faces a $1.8 billion budget deficit in its next fiscal year, due in large part to tough economic times. But tough times call for tough decisions. Will legislators choose to cut state spending or will they increase the tax burden on Michigan citizens?

If they choose the former, outsourcing management of at least part of the state's enormous criminal justice system could save taxpayers millions of dollars while simultaneously improving services.

(Lawrence Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. John La Plante has authored fiscal policy research articles for the Thomas Jefferson Institute in Virginia and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.)


The Reason Foundation

LOS ANGELES -- Saddam, you ignorant slut: Would you tune in for the Bush-Saddam debate?

By Tim Cavanaugh

Like some American Tariq Aziz, Dan Rather combines wide-ranging affability, unswerving fealty to a cause, and a belief in his own dignity that stays with him even in the most demeaning circumstances. In a way that nobody could have guessed back when there was doubt about whether he could continue the phony-baloney gravitas of Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite (two world-class frauds lucky enough to live in a less questioning age), Rather has built a career that even his most ardent detractors must recognize as legendary.

To name just the famous episodes would require more space than we have here. His appearance in Afghan garb during the Soviet occupation brought the lighter side of Afghanistan to America's living rooms. He has endured countless tired repetitions of jokes about The Frequency. He got an on-air dressing down from the first President Bush over a few Iran-Contra questions (an incident in which Rather, though clearly in the right, still managed to lose the battle of public opinion). He lived through an ill-fated match with Connie Chung that would have finished off a lesser man.

Was there any doubt that Rather would bag the coveted interview with Saddam? The only question is whether he got permission to do a pyrotechnic display in the presidential palace.

Which is why I'm guessing the most intriguing idea that was apparently floated during the interview -- a televised debate between Saddam and President George W. Bush -- will be a non-starter. Frankly, without a Rather driving the idea, it's hard to see how such a debate could ever come about.

Still smarting from having been burned by Captain Janks during coverage of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, Rather demanded to know whether Saddam was kidding with his suggestion. The Iraqi president assured the CBS anchorman that he was seriously challenging Bush because "war is no joke."

Too true! At the most basic level, the debate idea plays to the ancient and popular notion that wars should be fought in single combat between the leaders rather than en masse by the nation's youth. How did such a forward-looking proposal come from the more benighted of the two antagonists?

Anybody who expects either Bush or Saddam to take the debate in a walk would probably be disappointed. Overweening hubris about Bush's inarticulateness was what prevented Al Gore from finding his footing in his series of debates in 2000. Nor is Saddam likely to be a pushover in the field of longwinded responses.

We could expect the dichotomy between radio listeners and television viewers, familiar from the Kennedy-Nixon debates, to be even more pronounced. Bush has little physical appeal for overseas audiences, while Americans instinctively mistrust leaders with facial hair.

The really interesting thing to watch for on Wednesday night's installment of 60 Minutes II will be how deferential Rather had to be to keep Saddam talking. It's interesting that Rather has not so far enraged the patriots who threatened to kill Peter Arnett when he interviewed Saddam in 1991.

But anybody who saw Fox's footage of Martin Bashir sniveling and wheedling his way into Michael Jackson's heart should at least be aware of the humiliating rituals journalists must perform to gain access. (I suspect the reason reporters frequently become police groupies is wish fulfillment: Cops get to gather all the information they want without ever having to be nice to people.)

Giving Saddam a forum on American TV would, as likely as anything, increase America's distaste for him, but it might hurt the war effort in a more subtle way. We have all become comfortable limiting our exposure to the Iraqi to repeated viewings of that years-old footage of Saddam in his Don Corleone hat, firing his rifle in the air. While there is something redolent of the Two Minutes' Hate in that mindless repetition, it suits our needs.

The war has been sold successfully (and probably accurately) as an operation that will require relatively little pain or effort -- and mental effort is still effort. The last thing anybody wants is to have to spend even another minute thinking about Iraq.

As always, the only person not in on the joke is Rather.

(Tim Cavanaugh is Reason's Web editor.)


The Institute for Public Accuracy

(The IPA is a nationwide consortium of policy researchers that seeks to broaden public discourse by gaining media access for experts whose perspectives are often overshadowed by major think tanks and other influential institutions.)

WASHINGTON -- Coalition of the coerced?

Tuesday, White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer insisted that "the President is not offering quid pro quos" to other countries for their tacit support to invade Iraq. The following analysts take issue with such claims:

-- Sarah Anderson, Phyllis Bennis, John Cavanagh. Anderson is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies specializing in global economy issues; Bennis is a Mideast and U.N. expert and Cavanagh is the director of IPS.

IPS Wednesday released a report -- "Coalition of the Willing or Coalition of the Coerced?" -- which charges that member representatives on the U.N. Security Council are being recruited to support the wat against Iraq through coercion, bullying and bribery. The report notes that during the build-up to the first Gulf War, the U.S. government "bribed China with post-Tienanmen Square diplomatic rehabilitation ... The votes of several poor countries on the Council were purchased ... And when Yemen ... voted against the resolution authorizing war, a U.S. diplomat told the Yemeni ambassador, 'that will be the most

expensive "no" vote you ever cast.' Three days later the U.S. cut its entire aid budget to Yemen." The report is available at: http://www.ips-dc.org/coalition.htm

-- James Paul, director of the Global Policy Forum, which monitors the United Nations.

"Washington is putting extreme pressure on Security Council members to vote for a new resolution that would lead towards invasion, though 11 members of the Council have said they are opposed. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has said that it will 'act' against Iraq -- euphemism for invasion -- regardless of what the United Nations does ... The text of the new resolution will not authorize war under the U.N. Charter, but Bush and Blair will portray it to their doubting publics as legitimizing the attack. If the United States bullies through a Council vote, it will be a public relations gambit, not an authentic expression of the will of the international community."

-- Roberto Rodriguez, co-author of the syndicated "Column of the Americas."

"Through strong-arming, Bush expects the United Nations to behave the way legislatures function under despots: Either agree with me and rubber-stamp, or be dissolved.... The 'coalition of the willing' is composed primarily of the governments of former colonial European nations -- though a majority of their own populations (England, Spain, Italy, Australia) strongly reject this war."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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