† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Follow the Money: Private Prison Industry Funds Skewed Research
by nancy a heitzeg
This is an on-going story that isn’t new, probably isn’t unique, but which certainly serves as a case study in collusion. It offers a road map for what surely lies ahead. In April of 2013, Temple University Economics Professors Simon Hakim and Erwin Blackstone released “a working study” (please note, this study has yet to be peer-reviewed or published) touting cost savings of “12- 58%” when states use private prisons. The study was widely touted as “independent research” by Correctional Corporations of America (CCA) and further published on the GEO Group website, which ties the study to The Independent Institute, a free market/free for all “think” tank. GEO also links to glowing op-eds published across the nation:
- The Blade (Ohio): Privately run prisons offer value to Ohio Click here to read more
- Detriot Free Press (Michigan): Data Shows Running Prisons for Profit is a Win-Win Click here to read more
- Kennebec Journal (Maine): Private prisons offer big savings for corrections budget Click here to read more
- The State Journal (Kentucky): State would benefit from private prisons Click here to read more
- NewsOK (Oklahoma): Temple economics professors: Private prisons make fiscal sense Click here to read more
- SunSentinel (Florida): Blackstone, Hakim: Prison privatization can provide real benefits Click here to read more
- The Daily Caller: Study Finds Private Prisons Offer Massive Cost Savings Click here to read more
- Highland Community News: States Reap Huge Savings When They Contract with Private Prisons, New Study Finds Click here to read more
Buried in the fine print ( sometimes omitted altogether) was this:
The study received funding by members of the private corrections industry.
Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the monthly Prison Legal News and associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a criminal-justice advocacy group, filed an ethics complaint with Temple last June, noting this:
Both CCA and GEO have cited the study extensively; both have published info about the study and links to the study press release on their websites and/or FB pages; CCA also launched a Twitter campaign when the study was released. CCA repeatedly cites the Temple study in its propaganda pieces, though they are now mentioning the “industry funding” of the study (example 1, 2)
Also, the study authors, Blackstone and Hakim, submitted op-eds on the results of their study, lauding the cost savings of prison privatization, in at least 5 newspapers. All but one of their op-eds did not mention that CCA and other private prison firms had funded the study.
Note that the Temple study follows a pattern of specious academic research into prison privatization that is funded by the private prison industry. This includes a Vanderbilt study that was funded by CCA and APTCO (an industry organization for private prison service providers). Plus, of course, Prof. Charles Thomas at the U of Florida, who was the go-to researcher on prison privatization in the 1990s, and whose research found benefits from privatization. He resigned/retired and was hit with a $20,000 ethics fine after it was revealed that he owned stock in private prison companies, sat on the board of Prison Realty Trust (a CCA spinoff) and had been paid $3 million by Prison Realty/CCA. Can’t make this stuff up.
Temple is currently investigating the ethics complaint, which the University claims should be completed this summer. Color of Change is also requesting signatures on a petition to Temple University President Theobald, urging accountability and a policy on transparency re research funding. For whatever that is worth.
In the meantime, CCA Continues to Cite Misleading Study It Funded. UC Berkeley researcher Christopher Petrella recently sent an open letter to CCA, detailing the methodological flaws and asking them to cease promotion of the biased study. Petrella, using California as an example, details how the research fails to document how CCA saves money by contracting to house only the youngest, healthiest, and least expensive California prisoners in their out-of-state facilities. CCA’s contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) excludes at least 14 categories of highly expensive inmates that cost as much as 10 times more to house:
In California, CCA has negotiated a deal to house only 8,600 of the youngest, healthiest, and least expensive California prisoners in their out-of-state facilities. Publicly-run facilities, on the other hand, are responsible for housing individuals who are the most expensive to incarcerate and to treat.
The Temple Study looked at the operating costs of CCA versus publicly run facilities, and concluded that CCA is more efficient – without acknowledging or taking into account at all the fact that CCA and publicly run facilities each house dramatically different populations with significant differences in their cost of care. The striking differences in prisoner health, age, and cost by facility are indisputable and challenge the very legitimacy of the study that the for-profit prison industry funded and continues to publicize.
(Excluding expensive inmates is, of course, just one of the ways that the multi-billion dollar private corrections industry cuts costs. Under-trained and paid staff, human rights violations, such as the starvation of inmates documented in GEO’s Mississippi’s facilities, racial dis-proportionality, and heavily exploited labor even at ICE Detention Centers all contribute to the profit stream for the private prison industry. That is another long story.)
Who knows how many misleading “research studies” we may have already missed? Were it not for the vigilance of Alex Friedmann and Christopher Petrella, this current set of false data might have gone unnoticed and unchecked. Certainly all of the parties immediately involved — CCA, GEO, Temple University, the media, and the researchers themselves – failed to do their due diligence in reporting the potential influence of agenda-driven funding.
Beyond the Temple University case, we should come to expect more of this ostensibly ‘independent” error -laden industry funded research ahead. As we have been saying (see links below), privatization/profit is a major feature of the Right-wing Right on Crime agenda. This includes private prisons, lauded here again with links to dubious studies:
For those instances when prisons are necessary, explore private prison options. A study by The Reason Foundation indicated that private prisons offer cost savings of 10 to 15 percent compared to state-operated facilities. By including an incentive in private corrections contracts for lowering recidivism and the flexibility to innovate, private facilities could potentially not just save money but also compete to develop the most cost-effective recidivism reduction programming.
Given that the Right on Crime agenda also calls for “accountability”, “data-driven” programming and “performance measures”, expect them to finance the research that justifies the programming that serves their profiteering needs. Media will breathlessly report the the “results” without question or critique, researchers and funders will attempt to obscure the collusion, and it will be left to the rest of us to ferret out the flaws.
And Follow the Money.
- Faith, Profit and Prisons
- Confidence Men & “Prison Reform”
- Con Artists, Profit and Community Corrections
- Smoke and Mirrors?
- Prison Privatization Part 1: Another Cautionary Tale from California
- The Promise/Peril of This Moment
- Conservative Criminal Justice Reform, A Look Through the Distorted Fun House Mirror
- Liberals Take the Bait and Switch: The Myth of “Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform“
- The Mug Shot and the Money