On The Death Of The Prison Sale Plan

Tonight, the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee voted by a razor-thin 13-12 margin to kill Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to privatize three of Louisiana’s prisons. It’s seen as a devastating defeat for one of the key pieces of Jindal’s legislative agenda this year, and something of an evisceration of Jindal as the state’s rising political star.

So much of this is predictable, and so much of it is bizarre.

The predictable: the prison privatization plan has been seen as a political long shot for some time. Immediately after it was announced, an interest group sprang out of nowhere to protest it on the grounds that the governor was aiming to impoverish thousands of families in places like Marksville and Kinder. That the governor put the plan forward as a budgetary matter rather than a policy proposal was a mistake of colossal proportions – there is ample evidence to indicate that privatized prisons will save the state money, and evidence to indicate it won’t – but privatization for privatization’s sake is a policy matter, not a fiscal one, and the case to be made for it must be pursued on that basis.

The bizarre: that Jindal would have structured the prison sale as an avenue to accomplish another, more far-reaching and worthy in itself program to move the state’s Medicaid system to a coordinated-care-network model. This tied one to another, as selling the prisons was supposed to finance the transition costs of the CCN program and it meant that if one idea failed both would. For Jindal not to have managed to get a full buy-in from House Speaker Jim Tucker, who like Jindal is a Republican and a reputedly fairly conservative one at that, is puzzling. Had Jindal and Tucker managed to coordinate a plan on these ideas well in advance of the current session both would be smelling like a rose at this point, with the state’s Democrats howling as usual about the poor starving in the streets and the sick being laid down in the marsh. Since Louisiana’s voters don’t care what Democrats have to say any more, and for good reason, such a successful functional alliance would have benefited all involved.

But with Jindal, who as governor of Louisiana is structurally one of the nation’s most powerful governors and to boot faces no credible opposition to re-election, unable to organize a credible alliance with the legislature, those opportunities have gone by the boards. And so far this legislative session has devolved into one of the least productive in modern times.

That’s an indictment of Tucker as the House Speaker, who heretofore has had a reputation as having been productive in his current role. But it’s a bigger indictment of Jindal, who already had a shaky image where dealing with the legislature is concerned after last year’s failure to develop a sustainable budget.

There is no reason why the prison sale plan shouldn’t have been debated on its merits. Instead, it’s been debated as a budgetary measure, where the issue has been easily cast as some sort of voodoo mathematics. And what’s worse is that Jindal could transform Louisiana’s prison system – which considering that it incarcerates one out of 55 of the state’s citizens, a larger number than any other jurisdiction in the developed world, can’t be seen as generating acceptable results in terms of rehabilitation or recidivism particularly in light of the horrendous crime rates in Louisiana’s three largest cities – into something different if he’d gone after the privatization of not just a couple of prisons but a comprehensive market-based, innovative and intelligent system. If you’re going to put your corrections program into the free market, then privatize all the prisons and put them in competition with each other – with the state Department of Corrections as the consumer and a host of criteria governing the placement of prisoners. Does this facility demonstrate success with drug rehab? Does that one handle violent criminals with high security at low cost? Does a third specialize in job training? And so on. State-run prisons aren’t in a position to develop such capabilities – because the market doesn’t force them to. And the half-hearted and scattershot practice of prison privatization currently being used in several states doesn’t quite generate those efficiencies a healthy market is famous for.

Prisons aren’t all that different from schools. The state can lock people up in both institutions, but there’s little evidence to indicate they’ll produce much with them in there.

I think Jindal understands all this, but this incremental business with selling off a couple of prisons doesn’t work and it’s another example in which he has inklings of the right idea but not the willingness to make the kinds of bold, transformative moves which inspire legislators to jump on board. Because if the state merely sets up a contract with a few private companies to run prisons and those contracts have set durations, it’s entirely possible that the state might get in a position in which it can’t negotiate a good deal and ends up paying more to house prisoners at a given facility than if that facility was state-run. As such, legislators in districts close to or containing prisons will be easily spooked by a few prison guards who like cozy state jobs rather than the vagaries of the private sector. But if there is an actual market – if the private prison operators are bidding on the housing of individual prisoners according to the state’s stated needs in each circumstance (this prisoner needs drug rehab, that one is dangerous, this one needs remedial education and job training, etc) and there are identifiable metrics beyond simply length of sentence and yearly costs – then there is a chance to do something about the size of our prison population and the wasted human resources it represents. And there’s a political narrative and vision that a legislator being berated by the guards and their families can respond with “Yes, but what we’re doing isn’t working and I think this might actually change things for the better.” In short, an actual prison market rather than a few private Big Houses offers the concept of real change that politicians can get behind; selling off a prison only to essentially lease it back doesn’t look like anything but a short-term cash infusion.

In short, a blown opportunity. And a victory for a few small towns who misguidedly posit state-run (and probably overstaffed) prisons as economic development engines with the state – and the huge prison population which needs to shrink in favor of creating some productive citizens where they don’t currently exist – as the losers. Louisiana gained little in this debate, and that’s a shame.

As is the state of the working relationship between the state’s Republican governor and Republican-dominated House of Representatives.



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