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Note to those who believe that privatized public services and outsourced government tasks trump government-run enterprise: be careful what you wish for!

It is easy to bash government workers and to assume that because we hear stories about government waste and red tape, everything that city, state, and federal government touches is mismanaged. The mission of any government agency is to serve everyone in that jurisdiction. Notice that word, serve. Government-run agencies and services are not about profit or dividends. They are about preserving assets and protecting “we, the people.”

The privatization of prison services in the conservative, Republican state of Idaho is a case in point. Idaho prison service has a troubled past which traces back to the late 1800s and includes riots, hostage takings, inmate murder, and lawsuits. In 1997, desperate to get a handle on increasing unrest at the 25-year old state prison facility south of Boise, the state legislature approved the possibility of hiring out prison services to private contractors. That was the beginning of Idaho’s relationship with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

The idea looked good on paper: Turn corrections over to professionals with a business model based upon efficiency, experience, state of the art technology and education—and a set bottom line. With politics and government out of the way, prison problems and overcrowding would melt away. But that is not what happened. Businesses are in business to make a profit. How do you make a profit out of a prison? Increase the number of inmates served, decrease the cost of service to each inmate by automating everything you can and defunding expensive programs like education, nutrition, and medical care.

Faced with increased bouts of violence, documented cases of abuse and criminal misconduct by prison guards, and falsified records, Idaho’s Governor, a hard-core private enterprise advocate, has ended the state’s marriage contract with CCA. In directing the state to take back management of correctional facilities, Governor Otter has countered Robin Sandy, Chair of the state Board of Correction, who opposed allowing the state agency to bid on direct management of the facility because, in her opinion, that would (cough, gag, ahem) constitute an expansion of government. Poor Governor Otter.

For those who fear government control and programs like Social Security; Federal health care; federal and state health, safety, and banking regulations; consider the outcome Idaho’s grand experiment with privatization.

Additional reading:
Idaho Department of Corrections
KTVB News
News Daily
Newser: Read less know more (AP article by Rebecca Boone)
The Big Story (Rebecca Boone)