The potential costs of privatizing Michigan's prison system

May 9, 2013

Michigan spends $2 billion annually on its prison system. That’s slightly more than one-fifth of the state’s general fund, according to a 2012 House Fiscal Agency report.  In order to whittle down the size of the prison system’s financial burden, Michigan lawmakers have been looking at private companies to provide services.

Earlier this month, state officials opted to contract with Aramark, a Pennsylvania-based company, to provide food services for the 43,000 people incarcerated in Michigan. Officials say the contract could save the state $16-million. But Aramark’s track record in other states is spotty at best.

During the lame-duck session last December, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation that would pave the way for more privatization of prison services and even entire prisons. But state efforts to save money through privatization of prisons are fraught with examples across the country of dubious budget savings, dangerously inadequate services, and moral conundrums.

Natalie Holbrook, program director of the Michigan criminal justice program for the American Friends Service Committee, and Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, outline some of the problems with prison privatization.