Outsourcing Prisons? Hola Mexico!


Read more of Mark’s work at his blog D.A. Confidential

Gotta love California. Not only do they produce our movies, our wackiest news stories, and some of our avocados, but they have Arnie. And he hit the headlines Monday while talking about the state’s massive budget deficit. His idea is that California could save a billion dollars if 20,000 illegal immigrants currently held in the state were housed across the border in Mexico.

“Think about it — if California gives Mexico the money. Not ‘Hey, you take care of them, these are your citizens’. No. Not at all,” Schwarzenegger said. “We pay them to build the prison down in Mexico. And then we have those undocumented immigrants down there in prison. It would half the costs to build the prison and run the prison. We could save a billion dollars right there that could go into higher education.”

Oddly enough, one of my friends suggested this exact same thing to me earlier in the week. Seems like if my friends are thinking about this, and if Arnie’s thinking about this, maybe I should, too.

First, saving money… I like that idea. Assuming that the cheap costs of labor and materials off-set the loss of local employment (I’m sure Governor Arnie’s economists tackled that one, right?), then we can put a check beside “saving money.”

What other considerations are there? Well, from a defendant’s perspective it could go either way. Many undocumented immigrants have large families here in the U.S., so sending them back “home” to Mexico would be harsher than keeping them in state. Also, what of those from Honduras or elsewhere in South and Latin America, do they go too? On the other hand, many illegals have their families in Mexico, so sending them back would in some ways be better than a long prison sentence in Texas. How many there are of each would require some sort of study, I assume, though good luck finding someone to pay for it.

What about the victims of crime? How would you feel if the man who raped/assaulted/ran over you or your loved one was shipped home to do his time? Hard to say. I bet the prime concern would be ensuring that the sentence given was the sentence served. You have to wonder how it would work out in reality, whether the folks running the prisons would figure they could make good money taking prisoners from the U.S., but make more by releasing them early. After all, parole isn’t established up front, there is a good deal of discretion involved. And it’s entirely possible that, once on foreign soil, a shift in that country’s relations with the U.S. could mean serious criminals released after doing very little time.

And what of parole? Who makes that decision? Is it out of the hands of U.S. authorities? And if we want to retain control of parol, do we then have to train or set up parole boards south of the border to make sure it’s done our way? You run the risk not only of someone being released early from their sentence, but essentially not being on supervised parole afterwards. That means, in effect, that an illegal immigrant gets a “break” that a U.S. citizen serving time in his home state doesn’t get. In theory, of course.

This seems very much like the privatization of prisons to the next degree. For me the central questions revolve around, as I’ve said, the control of the release date, supervision after release, and conditions in which inmates are kept. The more I think about it, the more it seems like much of the staffing would have to be by U.S., or U.S.-trained personnel to make sure the “system” ran similarly to its cousin here. And so there go some of your cost savings.

But the truth is, I’ve only spent about thirty minutes noodling the issue. But unfair comparison or not, it reminds me of the old days when we (the British) shipped our inmates off to Australia. You want to know how that ended up? They got beautiful beaches and month after month of sun, and we got several centuries more of drizzle.

Mark Pryor is an Assistant District Attorney in Travis County, Texas. Read his blog D.A. Confidential.

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