Opinion: Moving Iowa forward, sell state prisons to private-sector

By: Ed Failor, Jr., President of Iowans for Tax Relief

November 9, 2009 @ 12:00 AM

The work of government taking and spending your money is endless, and state leaders continue to nibble around the edges.  Governor Culver has taken a one-size fits all approach to correcting the state budget instead of looking for ways to make Iowa a better run state.

At a time when our great state's fiscal house is in disarray, both cost-savings and more efficient operations are excellent reasons for state leaders to look to changing the way Iowa government does business. 

It is long overdue for lawmakers to seriously consider privatization within the Iowa Department of Corrections.  Today, there are over 9,000 inmates[i] in Iowa prisons, and the average annual cost per prisoner is approximately $30,000[ii].  Iowa taxpayers spend over $265 million on state prisons, and the average cost per prisoner increases each year.

Due to the governor's across-the-board budget cut, the Iowa Department of Corrections is slated to cut more than 500 of our prison workers, putting our public safety at risk.  Instead of jeopardizing the security of our communities, Governor Culver needs to look at the savings privatization could bring to the Iowa prison system. 

Currently, many states contract with private, for-profit businesses to run prison facilities as well as other prison operations.  States have privatized some prison functions for various reasons such as cost saving measures and operation efficiencies.  As recently as last month Arizona lawmakers, who are also facing a budget crisis, publicly discussed a measure to shift their correctional system to private control.  The Arizona proposal could save their state more than $100 million in the corrections budget, just for the operation of one or more of Arizona's prison complexes.[iii] 

The Rio Grande Foundation reports the estimated cost savings with only 45 percent of prisoners in private custody to be $9,660 per-prisoner[iv].  This would translate into a savings of over $39 million a year for Iowans. 

My recommendation to state leaders is sell Iowa prisons to the private-sector!  Now is the time to rethink the way we do government.  Privatizing our state prison system offers many benefits.  An increased legal accountability for privately-run institutions will make our communities safer.  Going from a public-run to privately-run facility will also eliminate the built-in structural inefficiency of government.  Iowa taxpayers would save tens of millions of dollars from the sale and operation of private prisons.  The current budget situation requires lawmakers to make real changes to state government, and selling the state prison system is part of the solution to moving Iowa forward. 

Without substantial change to the operation of state government, Iowa will continue to experience sudden, sharp economic downturns.  State leaders should focus on making decisions which will allow Iowa to move forward out of the fiscal crisis, and protect Iowa's future. Iowa needs strong and innovative leadership during this trying time, not short-sighted across the board cuts.

Right now our state is at a crossroads. Do we operate government the same broken way, or do we make sweeping changes, for a better Iowa?  It is time Governor Culver and Iowa Legislators transform Iowa government. 

[i] Iowa Department of Corrections Daily Statistics.  http://www.doc.state.ia.us/DailyStats.asp

[ii] Iowa LSA Fiscal Facts:  5/09. http://staffweb.legis.state.ia.us/lfb/docs/fiscal_facts/Fiscal_Facts_2009.pdf

[iii] Steinhauer, Jennifer.  "Arizona May Put State Prisons in Private Hands," The New York Times, October 24, 2009.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/24/us/24prison.html?_r=1

[iv] Mitchell, Matthew.  "The Pros of Privately Housed Cons:  New Evidence on the Cost Savings of Private Prisons"  Rio Grande Foundation, March 2003.