Columnist Dan Walters dismantles California's prison system in yesterday's Sacramento Bee piece, "Maybe it's time for prisons to go private." Here's an excerpt (emphasis mine):
California's cost of guarding, feeding, clothing, medicating and supposedly educating its nearly 170,000 prison inmates and supervising 110,000 parolees is about $10 billion a year. And it's very easily the fastest growing segment of the deficit-ridden state budget over the past decade.
It is, by a very wide margin, the costliest prison system among the largest states, with a per-inmate cost that prison officials tag at around $45,000 a year, roughly what it costs to send a youngster to one of the more prestigious private universities. [...]
It's a case study in political dysfunction, with penal policies being made in a highly charged atmosphere, with the union representing prison guards wielding way too much influence over those policies, as well as their own compensation, and with politicians' pandering to the union and public emotion rather than doing their jobs.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not been immune to that syndrome, exploiting the public's fear of crime during campaigns, but he has stood up to the guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, in sharp contrast to his predecessors, and with the state facing a fiscal meltdown has been willing to move toward reform.
Schwarzenegger says it's time for California government to adjust to a semipermanent shrinkage of resources, and get rid of wasteful, counterproductive spending. He's correct, and the first place to introduce rationality to a system gone mad would be in our overly expensive, underperforming prison system.
Interestingly, in a recent radio interview, Schwarzenegger suggested that privatization of prisons could save billions of dollars to offset other looming cuts in health and welfare services. If it's time to get serious about cutting our prison costs, private management could scarcely be worse than what we have now.