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Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime

Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime. Edited by Alexander Tabarrok; published by The Independent Institute, 510/632-1366 (phone),; 270 pages; $19.95.

C hanging the Guard is an examination of prison privatization in the United States and several other nations. It is a story told through four essays by writers with academic backgrounds in law, sociology, economics, and criminology. Breaking the argument into four separate contributions adds strength through diversity of opinion, but it also creates redundancy--the writers often repeat each other's material.

A fierce privatization proponent, the editor states the book's thesis on the first page: "...we now have ample evidence to say that on average, private prisons offer a substantial cost savings with no loss in quality." That may be so, but the editor weakens his argument by declaring his bias against public institutions in almost the next breath when he directs his attention "to those of us who believe that government is horribly inefficient." He backs this assertion with unsteady logic regarding the relative power of unions and lobbying groups.

The next three essays--written by an economist, law professor, and sociologist, respectively--also make the case for privatization. Dense with facts, they make their arguments well. Occasionally, however, authors undermine their own arguments. For instance, in the essay "The Economics of Prisons," economist Kenneth L. Avio concedes that "empirical evidence comparing private and public management of adult secure facilities has been scant and somewhat unsatisfactory."

Superior to the other chapters is the concluding piece, covering the benefits and drawbacks of more efficient prisons. Professor Bruce Benson of Florida State University contends provocatively that the increase in drug-crime arrests and incarcerations has weakened law enforcement in violent and property crimes. He suggests that decriminalizing drug crimes and other victimless crimes would free up resources to address more serious criminals. Designing a system that can more efficiently incarcerate people involved in victimless crimes serves to prop up the existing order longer than it deserves, he says. Benson's arguments are unexpected and offer much food for thought.

As an intense look at a narrow subject, this book isn't for everyone. But it should find an audience in the corrections industry and, perhaps more important, among anyone involved in prison policymaking.

Reviewer: Ross Johnson, CPP, is a Texas-based safety, health, environment, and security supervisor for an offshore oil-drilling company. He served in the Canadian Forces as an infantry and intelligence officer for 24 years, after which he worked as director of intelligence for Air Security International. He is a member of ASIS International.