Taxpayers Should Not Be Shackled to Empty Prisons

The state-of-the-art Thomson Correctional Center stands silent and empty in the northwest corner of Illinois, even though the facility is capable of housing 1,600 prisoners under maximum-security conditions. Finished in 2001 at a cost to taxpayers of $140 million, the prison has yet to house a single inmate. Thomson’s only current purpose is to serve as a storage container for never-used building supplies from other canceled prison projects, even as the Illinois corrections system suffers from a 30 percent overcrowding rate.

Given the regularity of reported prison capacity shortages, it is flabbergasting to discover the extent to which many prisons and jails are sitting unused across the nation. Even more shocking is the exorbitant costs to beleaguered taxpayers (including federal taxpayers) of these unused corrections facilities – maintenance costs for the empty Thomson prison reach over $1.8 million annually.

Unfortunately, the Thomson situation is not an isolated event. The pristine Wapato Corrections Facility in Multnomah County, Oregon cost taxpayers $58 million to build and is capable of housing 525 inmates. The jail is unoccupied due to a lack of operational funding but costs $300,000 to keep closed, even while the state prison system is straining to accommodate new entrants.

Similarly, the St. Petersburg Times reported in November 2004 how the $18.1 million, 256-bed Martin County Juvenile Offender Training Center in Florida was finished in January 2003 but remained closed for over a year and a half. The state spent $3,000 a month for electricity and air-conditioning to keep mold from growing in the echoing hallways and classrooms.

While empty prisons and jails are scattered among various communities nationwide, taxpayers across the country have footed the bill for these unused facilities in the form of federal earmarks and state appropriations. Naturally, they have every right to be indignant about the atrocious waste of their money, especially since controlling crime remains an important public concern.

Unused prisons are partly the legacy of a 1990s prison-building boom. “Get-tough” criminal policies boosted inmate populations, and states awash in budget surpluses and federal earmarks responded by funding waves of new prison construction. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, corrections outlays constituted seven percent of state general fund spending in Fiscal Year 2003 (the fourth-largest functional category behind K-12 education, Medicaid, and higher education).

Certainly, the publicity windfalls of appearing to “crack down” on crime while providing local construction jobs helped convince politicians to open the door of the budgetary vault. In the process, however, they’ve left taxpayers wondering whether this infusion of cash could have done more for the economy if left in the hands of business owners and workers in the private sector.

Nonetheless, once the economy did turn downward in 2001 and tax revenues plummeted, many states were left with prisons they claimed they could not afford to finish or to open for operation. The Thomson, Wapato, and Martin facilities are all prime examples of these irresponsible “over-build, under-fund” corrections policies.

Even now that economic forecasts are looking brighter, states still must deal with expenditure demands from a chorus of special interest groups who loudly insist their causes were “passed over” during times of budgetary crisis. In addition to this political problem, the National Governors Association has noted that while state revenue shortfalls have subsided, other demands from ongoing programs (like prison funding) will pressure state budgets for some time to come.

Having built expensive prisons and then paying to keep them closed, policymakers are clearly squandering precious resources that could be used more effectively elsewhere. We simply cannot afford to lock up funds in empty prisons during a multi-faceted war on crime and terrorism. The challenge is to find taxpayer-friendly solutions to the “empty prison” quandary.

Conservatives have long recognized the need for government protection of economic and civil rights through the use of a more accountable criminal justice system made up of police forces, courts, and penal complexes. We, in turn, should use the values of privatization, flexibility, and efficiency to build a solid foundation for a less wasteful, more sensible prison policy.

Privatization is one clear solution for trimming our misallocation of prison space. The nonpartisan Reason Public Policy Institute found that prison privatization can offer “increased innovation, access to expertise, improved quality, and enhanced accountability,” not to mention a cost savings of approximately 10-15 percent.

Selling or leasing correctional facilities to private entities would allow states to recoup some of the costs of prison construction, to potentially save on operating costs, and to increase pressure on public prisons to perform better. Three-fifths of states already have private prisons, and taxpayers would be well-served if policymakers explored this trend further.

Another potential solution would be to lease empty prison space to other jurisdictions. Many local, state, and federal authorities want to house prisoners without spending millions upfront to build new facilities. There certainly is a demand for this course of action; for example, Alabama, Iowa, and Alaska are among those in the market for space in other states. Federal bodies, such as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the U.S. Marshals Service, are also often looking for extra space to hold federal inmates.

This option comes with some awkward, but surmountable, challenges. Bureaucratic regulations, such as specifying where prison guards are allowed to live, often impede reform. The West Virginia state constitution actually prohibits the transfer of prisoners into other states, but legislators are attempting to amend this provision to allow flexibility. Cutting bureaucratic requirements and improving legal statutes would allow prisoner supply and space demand to more properly reconcile themselves.

In any case, white-elephant prisons should not be allowed to trample taxpayers underfoot any longer. Illinois residents pay every day for the flushing of unused toilets in Thomson Correctional Center to keep pipes from freezing. Surely we can find a way to stop pouring taxpayer dollars down the empty prison drain.