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Paying The High Price Of Crime

The daily cost to taxpayers of keeping a criminal in jail in Puerto Rico is about the same as a night in a country inn, $76. Will private management of prisons bring down the $451 million annual price tag?


October 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Penal Tax: The Correction Administration finally has more beds than inmates, but some are not where they are most needed.

Lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Faced with rising crime, governors and legislators have applied that policy sternly in recent years. Voters support it.

But what voters may not want to support is paying the piper, namely hundreds of millions of tax dollars that state corrections systems will use to house inmates during the next few years.

Puerto Rico–like the States–faces a correction budget crunch. Keeping criminals behind the island’s 48 prisons bars will cost a record $451 million in fiscal year (FY) 2000. That's $274 million more than FY 1992, an increase of 153%.

If the number of inmates remains the same–and there is no indication it will drop–taxpayers can expect to shell out $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. As it is, the Correction and Rehabilitation Administration’s (CRA) budget already makes up 2% of the local government’s total operational budget.

Another factor increasing local tax is that since the 1970s, Puerto Rico–again, like the U.S.–has been the object of federal court actions that force the local government to spend money to bring prisons up to "minimal Constitutional standards" related to crowding, health care, food, and other conditions.

With a panorama such as this, how can the cost of inmate care be lowered?

One alternative is turning prison management over to private companies. CRA figures show it is cheaper to keep inmates in privately run prisons. The current average cost per inmate in government-run prisons is $76 per day or $28,000 annually, whereas the government pays about $64 per day or slightly more than $23,000 annually to house an inmate in one of four local privatized prisons.

These four government-owned but privately run prisons are the Wackenhut Correctional Facility in Bayamon, Correction Corp. of America (CCA) Guayama Adult, CCA Ponce Young Adult, and CCA Ponce Adult. Together, they save taxpayers close to $14.7 million per year.

The government expects to privatize a fifth prison–the $8 million Women’s Camp at Zarzal Correctional–that was inaugurated two months ago.

Many Rossello administration reform initiatives have been aimed at privatizing public sector enterprises. The governor’s policy has been that the government should not own businesses the private sector is willing to provide and can manage better.

In the "privatization" model of Puerto Rico’s correctional system, a private correctional facility management company designs the facility and hires a private contractor to build it, under the Public Buildings Authority’s supervision. The government, which remains the owner of the building, then pays the management company to run the facility at an average $64 per inmate/day.

CRA Secretary Zoe Laboy said she plans to continue pushing the idea of privatizing new local prisons, but she doesn’t foresee any existing facilities being taken over by the private sector.

"Private correctional management companies prefer new buildings that will not have structural deficiencies," Laboy said. "And buildings designed by management companies are cost-effective because they require less staffing."

More beds, not enough at detention centers

In 1992, there were roughly 9,500 beds in Puerto Rico’s prison system with 11,300 inmates. Two years later, there were 13,449 beds, all mostly filled.

Today, the island’s correctional system has roughly 17, 353 beds, with 15,498 inmates.

"Right now, I have more beds than inmates, which was not the case 10 years ago in Puerto Rico," Laboy said.

The increase of beds results from a rise in CRA’s budget. Its FY 1992 budget was $179 million, compared to $186 million in FY 1994. CRA has a $451 million budget for FY 2000, which includes $306 million from the local government and a $145 million allocation from the federal Facilities Rehabilitation program.

Despite the increased funds, CRA detention centers–a.k.a. admission centers–are still overcrowded.

"I accept that on occasion, we still have an excess of inmates at our admission centers," Laboy said.

Admission centers house pre-trial detainees until their court trials are completed. In Puerto Rico, inmates are not allowed to stay at an admission center longer than six months.

Laboy said CRA does not have room to receive more detainees. Instead, it uses jail cells (that accommodate up to 18 people)–referred to as mobile detention centers–in various prisons to alleviate the situation.

"To help resolve this issue, we [the government] designed a short-term plan of adding 672 beds in three prisons for detainee admission," she said.

The government’s long-term plan entails a $75 million investment to construct three new detention centers–in Ponce, Bayamon, and Aguadilla–which would make up to 1,500 more beds available. Two of the three detention centers (Ponce and Bayamon) were awarded to Bird Construction, and it is expected that a private correctional management company will run these.

Privatization: some agree, others don’t

Despite CRA efforts to curtail expenses, housing prisoners is simply an expensive endeavor. However, savings can be achieved.

Taxpayers in Puerto Rico are only saving a fraction of what they could if prisons were privatized, according to Laboy.

"It is the government’s understanding that private companies have become our helping hand," Laboy said. "That is why one of my priorities is to continue striving for the privatization of new correctional institution operations."

In the States, a myriad of formulas are used for operating correctional facilities. These include government-owned-and-run prisons; privately built, staffed, and operated facilities; and government-owned but privately managed prisons.

When private correctional management companies own the buildings, the states pay a per diem rate for prisoners.

For the past two years, three of Georgia’s 41 state prisons have been privately run. All three facilities, of which CCA runs two, house 1,000 prisoners and plans are to move this number up to 1,500.

It costs an average $47 a day, or $54 if prison construction costs are factored in, for Georgia to house an inmate. However, the state pays CCA $45.38 per-diem at the two facilities it runs. Thus, eliminating construction expenses is the primary source of savings.

Although privatizing prisons can save money, security and health problems are at the root of the criticism raised against the process.

Last fall, a routine audit in Georgia reported security and health problems at CCA facilities–the same company that runs three of Puerto Rico’s four private prisons.

"The two facilities in Georgia experienced typical problems associated with the startup of any prison, public or private," said Orlando Rodriguez, warden at CCA Ponce Adult. "CCA is committed to addressing problems head on, with a proven track record of accountability and rapid response."

Locally, CCA is not reporting any problems, but Rodriguez said all prisons, public and private, routinely confront problems.

"What is important is how agencies address problems and CCA’s proven accountability and immediate response to problems is actually a benefit of the privatization process," he added.

At Wackenhut in Bayamon, Warden Gerardo Acevedo also said the facility has had its share of security concerns such as inmate fighting, but the problems were controlled instantly.

An industry expert speaking on the condition of anonymity said that privately run prisons are "fundamentally a sound idea, if a cost savings is to be carried out." The bottom line is saving taxpayer’s money.

Private prisons are the subject of raging debates nationwide, with a host of legal issues and constitutional aspects in play.

Some supporters argue that private enterprise is inevitably more efficient than government, while others fear companies will reduce costs by jeopardizing security or inmate care. Some contend housing violent inmates is too critical a task for government to entrust to private enterprise.

As a means of dealing with the criticism, some counties make privatization work by developing private-public partnerships.

In 1997, Lincoln County, N.M. faced serious problems with its 55-bed facility. Showing initial signs of overcrowding, its closure by fire marshals loomed. To make matters worse, its 20-year veteran jail administrator retired. As a result, in 1998, Lincoln County entered a memorandum of understanding with Correctional Systems Inc. for the company to provide a jail administrator and an evaluation of its jail to county commissioners.

While some argue that privatization is not the solution, others favor the idea.

At the second Americas Correctional Summit held on the island last month, members of 21 countries discussed prison-facility privatization in favorable terms.

Argentina’s laws prohibit privatization of services related to national security. Still, the country has privatized maintenance and food services in their jails.

On the other hand, some local members of the Federation of Prison Custodians denounced privatization as causing the loss of jobs and benefits.

"One of the biggest fears by correctional employees, regarding privatization, is losing their jobs," Laboy said. "No one has lost their job yet. What we are doing is relocating employees who worked at a prison that is being privatized to another prison, taking into consideration where they live."

Minimal Constitutional standards

In 1979, a group of inmates headed by Carlos Morales Feliciano, accused the island’s prison system of violating their civil rights by forcing them to live in overcrowded conditions. From that moment on, the island’s correctional system has been under judicial scrutiny to assure it does not violate inmate rights.

It was also at this time that the Facilities Rehabilitation program was initiated.

However, it wasn’t until this year that CRA could file a motion before federal judge Juan Perez Gimenez requesting 12 of the island's 48 prisons be removed from the Morales Feliciano case’s judicial scrutiny because they met constitutional standards.

"The administration understands that improvements have been made in the system meriting the termination of judicial scrutiny," Laboy said.

The motion was presented by CRA six months ago and a hearing is scheduled for Oct. 23.

Twelve prisons that have been accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA), including those being run privately, are on the list. The eight government-run facilities are Correctional Penitentiary Ponce, Correctional Penitentiary San Juan, Correctional Camp Naguabo, Correctional Camp Jayuya, Juvenile Correctional Facility I Ponce, Women’s Correctional Facility Ponce, Juvenile Correctional II Ponce, and Correctional Center Ponce.

Laboy pointed out that the same petition was not made for the remaining 36 prisons because they are not all in good condition and require improvement.

Instead, Laboy opted to request the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which states that there is no necessity of judicial scrutiny if there is not a pattern present of violating the rights of inmates.

"Just because we don't want judicial scrutiny doesn't mean we don't want to be supervised or not abide by federal requirements," Laboy said.

The CRA’s two new offices include a Compliance Office, which evaluates and audits prisons, and the Accreditation Office, which creates policies and procedures in compliance with ACA standards.

Problems: lack of officers and equipment

In 1997, CRA’s two main problems were a lack of officers and a lack of security equipment for its personnel.

To resolve the lack of equipment dilemma, Laboy invested $4.5 million in basics; radios, security vests, batons, munitions, handcuffs, protective headgear, metal detectors, x-ray machines, and work boots.

"There were incidents in which officers were being hurt by inmates because they didn't have the necessary equipment," Laboy said. "Once you hand bulletproof vests over to officers, the number of incidents and aggressions against them drops noticeably."

She also invested $1.5 million in purchasing vans, passenger vehicles, ambulances, four-track vehicles, and a tow truck.

"We needed vehicles to transport inmates to hospitals, medical appointments, and court hearings," she said.

Furthermore, Laboy invested $27.5 million in employee raises to improve working conditions in the system.

In 1997, an officer's monthly salary was $1,099 compared to $749 in 1992 and a sociopenal technician was paid $1,073 compared to $823 in 1992. This year, salaries have increased again. Officers will now earn $1,401 and technicians will earn $1,695.

Thanks to salary increases, since taking CRA’s helm in 1997, Laboy has been able to attract 1,200 new officers. This month, she will try to recruit 200 more officers. The new officers are expected to graduate from the correctional system’s six-week training program at its Salinas facility.

CRA also plans to open a second Correctional Training Center in Villalba by year’s end. The government will lease the building, which will have a training center, housing units, and a computer center.

Besides more pay, Laboy paid $19 million in overtime to employees for time incurred since 1994.

She has also signed a contract with INSPIRA to provide employees with counseling services, acquired new correctional officer uniforms, and increased training in fire prevention, tactical assault, personal defense and use of force.


CRA has come a long way to make sure inmates are able to benefit from rehabilitation programs regardless of custody or gang affiliation.

Today, CRA has nearly 40 rehabilitation programs that were developed through private-sector alliances, including four new ones–computer skills, Conviviendo Sin Violencia (Living without Violence), a culinary course, and residential treatment.

The computer skills program was implemented at minimum custody camps with the help of the Institute of Banking and Business. The federal court in the Morales Feliciano case provided $470,000 to subsidize this program and has approved its expansion within the system.

The Living without Violence program offers therapy from psychologists to inmates on probation. It has a $300,000-plus budget that is partly funded by federal funds. At the moment, there are over 16,000 inmates on probation, of which only 302 are supervised with electronic mechanisms.

Last year, San Juan opened its first residential treatment center to house adult inmates in alcohol and drug free environments. Humacao opened its first residential treatment center in 1998. Both centers are subsidized with federal funds of $842,000 for fiscal 2000.

Besides rehabilitation programs, CRA has invested close to $600,000 for new inmate uniforms to help reduce their family-incurred expenses. Also, the legislature granted $9 million to CRA’s budget for the provision of adult inmate health services.

Furthermore, close to $752,000 was invested in acquiring cargo vehicles, as well as industrial, printing, and sewing equipment aimed to provide inmates with vocational opportunities during their confinement.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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