WHEN THE HOUSTON PROCESSING CENTER, a for-profit prison, opened in 1984 near Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, area residents were aware that the minimum-security facility would house illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. What they didn’t know was that Nashville-based Correction Corporation of America, which runs the prison, hoped to make a little extra money by shipping in sex offenders from a maximum-security facility in Oregon. Houston law enforcement authorities didn’t know, either, since state law doesn’t require private-prison managers to notify them. In fact, the police and the public only found out last August, when two men, one convicted of sexual abuse and the other of rape and sexual assault, climbed over a fence, beat a guard, and stole a car.
Private companies may or may not run prisons more efficiently than the state, but one thing is certain: Privatization, whether it’s prisons, garbage collection, or massive welfare systems, makes it harder for the press to scrutinize how the public’s money is being spent. It means that vast amounts of data routinely available from state agencies—such as which contractors and vendors have won bids—are beyond the press’s reach and, by extension, the public’s. While the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is subject to freedom of information laws, for instance, Texas’ 39 private prisons aren’t. “You ask for something, and they’ll tell you it’s proprietary,” says Austin American-Statesman reporter Denise Gamino. “Their defense is, ‘This would damage us financially.’”
Proprietary information isn’t the only issue; there’s also safety. The Houston escapees were only two of at least fifteen who fled private facilities in 1996; most were murderers and rapists, and several remain at large. Yet prison officials have mostly been unwilling or unable to give details. “They make you jump through hoops,” says Kathy Walt of the Houston Chronicle. “A lot of times you’re dealing with out-of-state spokesmen who don’t know what the situation is.”
In the 1997 legislative session, State Senator John Whitmire, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, wants to strengthen state oversight of private prisons—and so does Governor George W. Bush. Their model might be one of the few private prisons committed to accountability: the Newton County Correctional Facility in East Texas, where retired TDCJ warden Lester Beaird keeps watch on some eight hundred inmates from all over the nation. Beaird and his employer, the Austin-based Bobby Ross Group, are fanatics about openness. Last year, when a Newton County convict hopped a concertina-topped fence and kidnapped a woman, Beaird was immediately on the phone with the media. It’s company policy to keep the public informed, the burly warden told me. “I’m not bothered at all by it,” he says. “It keeps us on our toes.”