The latest effort by for-profit prison corporations to laud their superiority over publicly-run prisons is supported by two Temple University professors who failed to initially disclose that their research study was funded by the private corrections industry. This pertinent fact was not revealed until Alex Friedmann, Managing Editor of the Prison Legal News filed an ethics complaint with Temple University officials that the 2013 analysis conducted by the professors has come under scrutiny for its purported findings.
An unfortunate result of the paper not being challenged initially is that policy makers made decisions based on their potentially biased research — their initial failure to disclose the funding source potentially biases their paper. The professors’ study found, unsurprisingly, that private prisons save money, perform comparably to government-run prisons, and that they facilitate much-needed competition. In lieu of this recent discovery of the funding source, I decided to review their study to assess a few of the salient findings.
Most studies attempting to make comparisons between public and private prisons find that private prisons are more effective and save money, determine there is little difference between the two, or that the comparisons are inconclusive. Studies which determine that private prisons save money are usually underwritten by the private corrections industry. Studies which conclude that cost savings are difficult to determine and savings are nominal are usually conducted by independent agencies such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Studies conducted by the Arizona Auditor’s Office, and the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center appear to meet the criterion of being independent. As someone who has studied prison privatization extensively, I find that disparate research findings highlight the inability to make an apples-to-apples comparison between public and privately-run prisons. Readers of such research promulgating private prisons as superior should read with skepticism any findings that suggest apples-to-apples comparisons are made between public and private prisons.