Monday, March 03, 2008

Locked-In Profits or Service to the Downtrodden?

Suppose you're the wife of a man who got arrested in Oakland, California. You weren't with him at the time, and all you know is the bare fact that he was arrested. Until recently, your only alternative was to call the Alameda County public information number, work your way through a phone tree, and hope there would be a live person at the other end who could tell you something. Sometimes there was and sometimes there wasn't. But now, thanks to the initiative of some staff in the Alameda County Information Technology department, there is an Inmate Locator on the county's website. If you have the person's full name, or even if all you know is that they were booked in the last twenty-four hours, you can get online and see identifying information, the "custody status," and which jail they're in. Of course, you have to have a computer and a high-speed internet connection to do this efficiently, but doesn't everybody?

Despite the drawback of needing a computer to use it, this little advance in IT touches on a subject that I have seldom seen addressed in the engineering ethics literature. What special obligations or ethical issues are related to engineering as it applies to prisoners and jails? And in particular, what should we say about the recent trend toward privatization in U. S. prisons?

You may have read that the United States has the both the highest documented rate of incarceration in the world (over 700 per 100,000 population) and the largest absolute number of people behind bars (over 2 million, plus another 5 million or so on probation or parole). The reasons for this are worth going into, but for now let's just say they're a given. All these people have to be housed, fed, treated for medical conditions when necessary, shipped around, and maybe allowed some education and communication privileges. In addition, there are the families and friends of prisoners who have certain rights and privileges with regard to those behind bars. As the Alameda County IT folks have shown, engineering can benefit both the prisoners and their friends and relatives, in an entirely legal way (I'm not talking about high-tech jailbreaks here, which I suppose would be another way engineering could enter the picture).

I think it's significant that the people who came up with this idea were government employees (the article describing the system did not state otherwise). Along with the boom in prison populations has come a related boom in private prisons and companies that operate them. One of the largest, the Corrections Corporation of America, has gotten some coverage in this week's New Yorker magazine for its less-than-ideal operation of an illegal-immigrant holding facility outside Taylor, Texas, just up the road from my university here in San Marcos.

Privatization has been sold as a kind of universal solution to every government cost problem, but there are limits to what it can do. Somehow I suspect if Alameda County had outsourced its jail operations to a private firm, that firm would not have hired five web developers to come up with the Inmate Locator. Abuses can happen both in private and in public organizations, but the incentives are different.

As an employee of a state university, I view the advantages of well-run government-operated services as chiefly these: (1) Stability---the turnover in government employment is much lower than in comparable private operations; (2) Esprit de corps---in well-run government operations, a public-spiritedness can foster a selfless dedication to the needs of those serviced; (3) Relative lack of cost-squeezing pressures---assuming the management makes a good case to the appropriate legislature, expenditures can be planned and justified without concern that they will risk ending the whole enterprise if a lower bidder comes along.

I'm well aware that a critic could come along and turn each of those arguments on its head. Stability can mean that once a goof-off gets a government job, he's set for life. Private companies can develop esprit de corps too, and cost-squeezing pressures can happen in government as well as private industry.

But I would point out a philosophical difference between the two approaches. The bottom line of government service is just that: service. Ideally, the public servant is as dedicated to his or her clients as the nuns of centuries ago who founded and staffed the first hospitals. At least, there is no philosophical conflict between having a totally dedicated public servant and the overall goals of the organization.

With private companies, especially those which are joint-stock (publicly owned) firms, the fundamental philosophy is different. If a company doesn't make money for more than a certain length of time, it should disappear, and often does (despite evidence such as General Motors to the contrary). Companies can provide good services, but there is a built-in conflict between the ultimate raison d'etre of a company, which is making money for the owners, and service to its customers or clients, at least to the extent that improvements in the service or product make less profit available to the owners.

This is not to say that all corporate enterprise is morally suspect—absolutely not. But prisoners are a special kind of client, and are treated specially along with children, the elderly, and medical patients in a number of ethical contexts such as the rules for ethical conduct of research studies. Unlike a customer at a hardware store, if a prisoner doesn't like the service he's getting, he can't just walk away and go to another prison. I think that is the main reason why for nearly the entire history of prisons in the U. S., they have been exclusively a government-run operation. Maybe the government didn't do that good a job, but at least there was a way, in principle, for abuses in government-run prisons to be corrected through the democratic process. Private companies that run prisons can and do claim that vital information about their operations is a trade secret, and therefore not available for public access, at least not without a lengthy and often unsuccessful series of inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act. This kind of secrecy can hide abuses and wrongdoing that would be harder to hide in a public setting.

So what is the bottom line here? First, kudos to the IT folks in the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, who make it possible for the over 100 inmates booked each 24 hours to be found by their relatives or friends much more easily than before. Second, any time an engineer does something related to prisons or prisoners, he or she should remember that prisoners are not just any old client. They have special rights and privileges. Yes, many of them have done something wrong. But the fact that we are a country of laws means that we need to hold those laws in high regard, especially when we deal with people who may have broken them.

Sources: The article on Inmate Finder appeared in the online issue of the San Francisco Examiner for Mar. 3, 2008 at The New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot on CCA's operation in Taylor is entitled "Lost Children," on p. 58 of the Mar. 3, 2008 edition. Statistics on U. S. prisons were found at the Wikipedia article "Prisons in the United States."

1 comment:

  1. You missed the Key Point of government services versus outsourcing - accountability.