Researchers at Washington State University are challenging the widespread belief that private prisons can help job growth in rural counties.
In a new paper, "Prisons, Jobs and Privatization: The Impact of Prisons on Employment Growth in Rural U.S. Counties, 1997-2004," they say that privatization of prisons, in fact, often has a negative impact on their host counties.
"What we found is that when a new prison opens in a rural county, they tend to have fewer jobs instead of more," says Gregory Hooks, a WSU sociology professor. "There is no evidence of private prisons being statistically significant in terms of job growth but we did find that states embracing privatization went the other way."
Hooks, along with co-authors Shaun Genter and Clayton Mosher, used Bureau of Justice data to compare rural counties in states pursuing privatization to those that aren't. Over the last 20-30 years, there has been a disproportionate number of prisons built in rural counties, he says.
According to Hooks, proponents of private prisons often tout efficiency and potential job growth as reasons to embrace these institutions.
"When a state government rapidly chooses to build new prisons and has them run privately or turns over the management of current public prisons to private prisons, that sets in the motion the race to the bottom in terms of employment patterns, salaries, total staffing ratios, corrections personnel vs. prisoners and so forth," he says. "Remaining publically managed prisons have to look like private ones or else they're at risk to become privatized. That's very much one of the selling points of private prisons. That's very much a selling point of politicians that endorse privatization. They think that it will discipline and make efficient the public bureaucracy."
Hooks says that there are sharp differences between private and public prisons in terms of salary, benefits and the turnover rate.
The study says that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual wage for correctional officers employed by the federal government was $50,830. Officers employed by state governments earned $38,850 and those employed by local governments earned $37,510. In comparison, officers employed in private prisons earned a median salary of $28,790.
The number of jobs per 100 prisoners is also lower for private prisons and states that pursue privatization.
Nationally, the annual employee turnover rate for private prisons is 52 percent, compared to 12 to 25 percent for public prisons, according to Hooks.
Although the private prison industry has grown rapidly over the last couple of decades, the violent crime rate has actually gone down, says Hooks. Specifically, he notes that the murder rate has declined significantly.
"While that number has been declining, the number of people being locked up is through the roof," says Hooks. "I'm be in favor of less violent crime but it's not clear that's what's going on with incarceration. The United States is the most incarcerated place on earth. There are more people locked up in the United States than all of China."
Hooks points to the War on Drugs as a major contributing factor. Between 1980 and 2000, the incarceration rate nearly tripled, despite the homicide rate declining by nearly 50 percent. There are around two million people currently incarcerated and around five million on probation or parole. Most are serving time for nonviolent offenses, many of which are drug related.
Ironically, Hooks says resources used to fund prison growth were diverted from education. In a previous study, he and another WSU doctoral student found that community colleges helped local employment growth in host counties most years between 1976 and 1997.
Besides educating students for future careers, a community college also has the "spillover effect" of creating jobs for staff and faculty and increasing consumption of goods from local vendors, says Hooks.
He notes that community college can be a rite of passage for many and without it, institutions like prisons can fill that role.
"Most people commit most their crimes between the ages of 16-24," says Hooks. "That's also when you might go to college. Community college is one way for people to transition to adulthood and so is the prison."
According to his research, the number of 18-24 year olds grew steadily between 1967 and 1980. However, the U.S. still made investments in education to meet this demand.
The war on drugs, he says, reversed this course. During this period, the number of 18-24 year olds declined. In addition, the cost of education has gone up because of lack of public funding, making it even harder for young people to receive an education. According to Hooks, it can cost a state from five to ten times as much money to lock someone up as it would to support him/her through community college.
"The imagery is so vivid of a country that is making it easier for your transition to adulthood to come with a felony conviction and the stigma that goes with it and a bit harder for you to transition to adulthood with an education credential."