At first blush, Cornell Companies, Inc. appears to be just one among several private corporations whose enterprises generate revenue by building and operating prisons. Beyond the momentary glance, though, Cornell contrasts sharply with its competitors. Just like the background and professional experience of its Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Tom Jenkins, Cornell operates in all three segments of the corrections industry. Adult secure, juvenile justice programs and pre-release centers are “all legitimate perspectives, and all three need to work together so we can get the appropriate synergies for the system,” comments Jenkins. The company has 72 facilities in 13 states and the District of Columbia and also operates seven fully accredited schools as part of its juvenile justice programs.
Accountability is the focus of those who argue both the pros and cons of prison outsourcing and privatization. Both groups use it to bolster their arguments but, in the end, accountability is a system used to review behavior and results. It’s also a willingness to be reviewed and to be held accountable. In that sense, Cornell is the cream of the crop in the U.S. correctional system.
Jenkins admits there is a higher degree of scrutiny of private prisons than for public prisons. “I think that the manner in which we are scrutinized and reviewed is probably tighter based upon government and community fear of whether we can do what we are talking about. By nature of the beast, government is not an efficient instrument. We have new and improved ways of doing things and can do them quicker and more efficiently than the government can.”
He points to Texas, leading the nation in prison privatization, as a good example of increased efficiency. With one of the largest inmate populations, the Lone Star State has incredible overcrowding. “Then you’re dealing with a lot of safety issues, security issues, inhumane care, increased liability and a whole pressure-cooker sort of environment that develops,” Jenkins explains. “What evolves over time is that government ends up making some poor decisions. We need to deal with overcrowding, and the private sector can do that better and very quickly. The private sector has demonstrated we can get a program up and operational in 18 months, as compared to three to five years for the government.”
More Than Three Hots and a Cot
Jenkins captures the crux of the matter of accountability, though, when he says that it’s not about the costs or efficiency. “If you put an inmate in that environment where nothing is happening except for three hots and a cot, the inmate ends up leaving the facility and reoffending again. The cycle of incarceration perpetuates itself, and that is very costly to society,” he explains. Cornell’s philosophy is that inmates who are placed into more humane environments, provided some restructuring of the way they behave, given job skills and an ability to become taxpayers instead of convicts, will break the cycle of incarceration.
From where Cornell stands, the accountability issue is not about costs or even about efficiency. It’s about value. He says most of the people in the industry have come out of government positions. They bring to play their government experience, eliminating bureaucracy from decision-making, and good business sense with innovation. Cornell provides its inmates with alcohol and drug treatment programs; domestic violence and family counseling; victim awareness and corrective criminal thinking classes; anger and stress management; education and job skills; life skills; rape crisis and suicide intervention programs; and specialty services such as sex offender treatment, Native American program and men’s issues.
Jenkins encourages measuring sticks and says that “any reputable company that is in it for the long haul, like we are, would actually look forward to more accountability and increased performance standards.”
Cornell welcomes opportunities to compare its operational successes against other private prison companies and government-run prisons. The problem with measuring sticks is that there are no apples-to-apples comparisons. In evaluating the true costs of running correctional facilities, the government does not add in costs for the infrastructure, bureaucracy, capital; but it does get loaded into private prison costs. Jenkins believes we as a society need to require government to identify the true costs of running programs. Additionally, it’s difficult to compare costs when Cornell is into value adding.
To that end, Cornell has implemented a Company-Wide Standardization Project, collecting data about the effectiveness of its internal programs. The project includes statistics and graphs comparing Cornell with other private and government prisons, in areas such as community service, employment released inmates are able to obtain, the amount of restitution that they have paid back, the number of inmates participating in educational programs and other treatment programs, AWOLs and escapes, community service hours, and other indicators.
The company also wants to be accountable to its inmates. Prior to juveniles being released from programs, an external third party performs an exit interview. Cornell made adjustments based on feedback that the education program was too easy, some programs were not culturally sensitive and some did not pay enough attention to religious preferences.
Toward all of the measuring instruments in place at Cornell, Jenkins says, “Frankly, it’s with an eye toward increasing the accountability that is already upon us. Evaluate us. Hold our system accountable for performance, as opposed to incarceration.” It’s a spirited challenge, backed by significant investments for the massive undertaking of collecting the correct data.
Jenkins says, “At the end of the day, this is about partnership. There needs to be enabling legislation within the states that allows for privatization; then there needs to be proper review and monitoring processes put in place. It’s a young industry, and many are slow to adapt to it. Part of the solution is to ensure that accountability is a part of all our contracts. It’s all about value.”
Lessons from the Outsourcing Primer
- There is a higher degree of scrutiny of private prisons than for public prisons.
- The accountability issue is not about costs or even about efficiency. It’s about value.
- We need to require government to identify the true costs of running its programs.