Memphis-Born Author Takes Shot at Prison Privatization

By Andrew Ashby

Jail privatization might be a growing industry in the United States, but a Memphis native has written a book about how privately owned prisons aren't a good idea.

Early this month, Praeger Publishers released a book titled "Merchandising Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?" by Dr. Byron E. Price, an assistant professor of public administration at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., who grew up in a Memphis housing project. The book is Price's first, and Praeger specializes in printing academic and general interest books.

One of Price's main points in the book is that private corrections companies are businesses that profit from incarceration, which means they have less incentive to reform prisoners.

"It's a billion dollar business," Price said. "As long as they have a vested interest to incarcerate, I don't see how an entity that has made billions of dollars off of commoditizing human misery should be in the business of managing these prisons."

For now, prison privatization is on hold in Shelby County after much debate in recent years.

Last month, the county released a review rejecting jail privatization proposals by the Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group Inc. and the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) - both major players in the national private prison industry.

Both wanted to privatize the county jail system, which includes the Justice Center at 201 Poplar Ave. and the corrections center at Shelby Farms, otherwise known as the penal farm.

If either proposal had been successful, local experts say, Shelby County's would have been the largest privately run prison system in America.

Innocence and experience

Price's interest in incarceration and prison privatization began when he was growing up in South Memphis' Lemoyne Gardens housing project in the early 1970s.

He began to notice there weren't many black men around, including his own father.

So he asked a couple of adults around the neighborhood what was going on.

"They said all of them were in jail," Price said.

Price went on to graduate from Fairley High School in 1981 and then left Memphis for college.

He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in public affairs from Texas Southern University in Houston in 1988. He then earned a master's degree in business administration from Oklahoma City University while he served as a U.S. Army artillery officer at Fort Sill, Okla, in 1991. Price returned to Texas Southern University and completed his master's in public administration in 1993.

Finally, Price earned his Ph. D. in public policy and administration at Mississippi State University in 2002 before moving on to teach research design and political economy at Rutgers.

While in college, Price came across several articles on prison privatization that piqued his interest in the subject even more. One article talked about how prison privatization has its roots in Texas and Tennessee.

Accordingly,Nashville-based CCA claims to be the founder of the private corrections industry and is the nation's largest provider of jail, detention and corrections services to government agencies. CCA was first offered on the New York Stock Exchange in 1994.

"So I said, 'That means they have a vested interest in incarcerating,'" Price said.

One of the main problems Price has with private jails is that they might not be as inexpensive as people would believe because they skimp on retaining qualified workers.

The entry level salary for a corrections officer at a public prison is $23,000 a year, while entry level salaries are $17,000 at private institutions, according to the Corrections Yearbook, which is released each year by the National Institute of Justice. Also, the turnover rate for corrections officers in public prisons is 16 percent, compared to 52 percent in private prisons.

"When you think about it, they get a less qualified corrections officer because they pay less and they don't pay benefits," Price said. "They look to cut the bottom line because they want to make sure they maximize shareholder wealth."

Price said many governments also don't take into account some of the costs that come with privatizing prisons. A state has an obligation to monitor prisons even if it doesn't run them, he said. Also, private prisons won't treat prisoners with HIV, and the state has to absorb that cost.

If a state does decide to use a private prison company, government officials must be careful when entering into a contract.

"If the state writes a poor contract, then the state is going to wind up paying more money," Price said. "Before you privatize, make sure you have a handle on all of your costs and make sure the contracts are performance-laden."

Ex-cons, rights and wrongs

Since private corrections companies are concerned with profit, they often leave the idea of rehabilitation by the wayside, especially when it comes to non-violent offenders, he added.

"I think people think when I talk about this issue, I'm concerned about violent offenders," Price said. "I'm concerned about non-violent offenders who made mistakes in their youthful exuberance ... but they're not accorded a second chance. We're moving away from giving non-violent offenders a second chance to be re-integrated into society."

Price said he also is concerned about the restrictions put on felons, such as voting.

"If you make prisons a business in Memphis, then Memphians, especially African-Americans, are more likely to lose their voting power there because they're disenfranchised," Price said. "Even in the former apartheid regime in South Africa, they didn't disenfranchise you from voting. The United States, the most democratic country in the world, is the only country that disenfranchises people for a felony after they (have) completed their sentence."

Price also said felons face restrictions on financial aid and public housing.

"So what are you going to do? You're going to go back to a life of crime more than likely," he said.

In Price's book, he also asserts that prisoner labor is used as a commodity. He cites statistics from a 2001 article released by the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Policy Litigation Project.

The article said the black male slavery population in 1820 was 783,781 and in 2000, the projected black male inmate population providing free labor was 792,000.