Since the mid-1980s, private companies have contracted with states and branches of the federal government to assume certain prison operations. The argument behind these contracts has been that private companies — which are not beholden to things like pension arrangements with correctional officer’s unions — can cut prison spending in ways that governments can not.
For the most part, this argument was theoretical — an idea never definitively proven by any significant academic studies (though some have tried to do so). But then, in April 2013, came a study out of Temple University in Philadelphia. This study found that private prison companies could help governments cut costs from between 12.46 percent and 58.61 percent. It looked like a groundbreaking study on its surface, and the private prison industry ran with it. But recently that appearance has begun to fade and reveal a very different picture: that of corporate prisons taking a page out of Big Tobacco's playbook.
Private prison companies were doing well enough without the academic boost. Though these companies only oversee about 8 percent of United States prisons, the number of prisoners in private facilities rose by 37 percent between 2002 and 2009, and the companies generally make a lot of money: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the world, has a market cap of $3.74 billion; one of its competitors, the GEO Group, has a market cap of $2.46 billion. But the study was nonetheless helpful; it backed up the savings claims with an ostensibly independent study from a reputable academic institution. It brought private prisons — and the contracts those companies were lobbying to secure with states and the federal government — into policy discussions all over the country. The study’s authors, Temple economics professors Simon Hakim and Erwin A. Blackstone, even wrote op-eds in newspapers where private prisons were being considered by lawmakers. This was all excellent news for private prison companies.
"The study received funding by members of the private corrections industry."
Soon after, however, the study’s findings began to look a little less excellent.
Private prison companies have an enemy in a man named Alex Friedmann. He’s a former CCA prisoner and editor of Prison Legal News who has devoted a significant portion of his post-prison life to pointing out the faults in private prisons. He’s aligned with unions — which are opposed to private prison companies — and he argues that, by cutting costs, these companies put the welfare of prisoners in jeopardy.
When the Temple study was released, he noticed the very last line in a press release that went along with it: "The study received funding by members of the private corrections industry."
Friedmann wondered: how could the study be independent if it received funding from private prison companies? The press release had made it clear that these companies had helped pay for the study, but the original study itself did not. He wrote about his concerns in op-eds, often responding directly to op-eds written by professors Hakim and Blackstone. He filed an ethics complaint in May 2013 with Temple University alleging that the professors "breached their ethical responsibilities" by not disclosing their funding sources. In the meantime, members of the private prison industry continued to tout the study’s findings.
Then last month, the ACLU got involved, publishing an open letter to private prison companies outlining the study’s faults and "astonishingly misleading" conclusions. By mid-July, Temple finally made an announcement. It was distancing itself from the study: "Temple didn’t receive any grant funds for this work, and we don’t endorse or interfere with faculty when they conduct independent research — their work is their own. It’s not a Temple University study, it’s the work of the professors."
This reaction from Temple isn’t uncommon, says Vickie J. Williams, a law professor at Gonzaga University who has written about private funding concerns in health studies. She told me told me that corporations fund studies frequently. It happens in health care all the time. But there are expectations about how to ensure that privately funded research is sufficiently scrutinized. Peer review — where academic studies are put in front of reputable scholars who pick apart those studies and then publish notable work in academic journals — is a way to do that. The Temple study was not peer reviewed before its public release last April. Williams thus compared it to research funded by tobacco companies. "Tobacco companies sponsored a great deal of biomedical research involving tobacco," she told me. "And of course the fact that they had the power to suppress or skew the results of that research lead to a great many lawsuits."
It’s anyone’s guess whether lawsuits will befall private prison companies in the wake of Temple’s study. In the meantime, the controversy continues. The Independent Institute, a libertarian think-tank, published the Temple study in June. Friedmann is "putting together a faculty sign-on letter to Temple requesting that the school adopt a formal policy regarding disclosure of funding sources of academic research," he wrote me in an email. And a CCA representative denies the worries over the Temple study amount to anything significant at all: "To date, no one has pushed back on or taken to task the findings, or the validity of the research," the representative told Inside Higher Ed.
That last part isn’t exactly true. The ACLU’s open letter disputes a number of the study’s findings. And I’ll offer another as an example:
The Temple study's findings in Arizona go against even what Arizona's own state legislature found about prison costs. Arizona's legislature found that private prisons didn't result in a significant cost savings, while the Temple study found the opposite. Why the discrepancy? Among the reasons why the Temple study disagreed is that the "state provides all the required medical care at selected [Arizona] prisons, while private contractors have limits on the care they are required to provide." Which means, in short, that the Temple academics chose not to take into account the costs of prisoner medical care in private prisons. That’s a major omission.
The study didn't take into account the costs of prisoner medical care in private prisons.
Regardless, I can’t help but think the study’s existence — and the debates over its funding, its veracity, and its findings — are good. The study itself attempts to justify a system with an argument. That argument may be a purchased. It may be flawed. But at least it’s there as a point of discussion.
This discussion — about private prisons in this case, but more broadly about the state of our prison system in general — is one we need to have.
The numbers are staggering. The US throws so many people into prison, the numbers sound fictional. In Pennsylvania, the state where I live, there are more than 51,000 people serving time in state prisons, about equal to the number of people who live in the state’s capitol, Harrisburg. The national numbers are similarly unthinkable: about 2.2 million people live in prison cells nationwide. Counting the people who are on parole, on probation, awaiting trial in jail, or otherwise under the supervision of our vast incarceration system, the overall number rises to 7 million, about the population of Hong Kong. And yes, it’s expensive to do all this: we spend more than $60 billion per year locking people up, monitoring their every step, ushering them through criminal court proceedings, and forcing them to be marked as "ex-cons," ex-offenders," or, in the worst-case scenarios, prisoners for life.
Public figures from Rand Paul and George Will to Newt Gingrich and Van Jones believe we need to talk about these things. And, despite their faults, it's studies like the Temple study that can bring these issues up for public scrutiny. They can at least be used as a jumping-off point — a way to bring the discussion from, perhaps, a long and hilarious segment on John Oliver’s HBO program to real change that might eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, roll back harsh punishments for non-violent crimes and drug-related offenses, and incarcerate fewer people.
And if any study can insinuate such changes into a national discussion — whether purposely or not — that’s a study worth doing.