But privatization is rapidly dismantling the wall between state responsibilities and for-profit ventures, and as a result, the housing of inmates has become a lucrative business.
Keon Chi, a senior fellow at the Council of State Governments, the success of these privatization efforts is dependent upon the government's continued involvement.
"If Ohio structures and monitors the privatization and operation of its prisons intelligently, the results will be remarkable," Chi said. "If not, the results could be disastrous."
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country's largest prison contractor, opened a facility for out-of-state inmates near Youngstown with little government supervision and, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, operated it with "a posture of isolationism" and a "limited sense of accountability."
Within 10 months of the prison's opening, 45 assaults, 20 stabbings, and two murders had occurred. In July 1998, six inmates, including five murderers, escaped. Ohio's entire prison system, consisting of almost 49,000 inmates, experienced only 22 assaults and two deaths in 1997.
The Department of Justice and a state legislative committee placed much of the blame on the company's passion for profits. CCA cut expenses by hiring guards with no experience, many of whom were not even licensed to carry a firearm.
Revenues were pumped up by filling empty beds of the medium-security prison with violent, maximum-security prisoners.
Sen. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, a vociferous opponent of the company's actions, has proposed legislation that would prevent the establishment of additional private institutions for out-of-state prisoners.
"CCA lied to Youngstown, they lied to us, they lied to everyone," Hagan said. "These companies are in it strictly for the money and cannot be trusted."
Hagan also is concerned that, because revenues are based solely on daily prison population, companies have no incentive to rehabilitate inmates. Others are concerned that the industry's lobby might push for harsher sentencing and oppose non-prison rehabilitative options, no matter how promising, in order to guarantee full prisons in the future.
While Hagan and other state leaders still are attempting to remedy the legislative oversights that left CCA unsupervised in Youngstown, Rep. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, has introduced an aggressive bill that would require all future state prisons, except maximum-security facilities, to be built and operated by contractors such as CCA.
"We have committed ourselves to protecting Ohioans through tougher sentencing, and we need more prison space," Coughlin said. "The private sector can help us meet these obligations by saving us 20 percent on construction and 15 percent on annual operating costs."
But Peter Wray, communications director for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, thinks any savings will be much lower than Coughlin's projections.
"Ohio's prisons are a well-run operation," Wray said. "Our cost per inmate has been among the lowest in the country for the past 15 years. The private sector may realize some savings, but not a significant amount."
Although Coughlin's bill calls for private companies to adhere to the regulations that govern the state-run system, Wray thinks that the profit motive presents incentives to work around and against the law.
"Regulating these private companies is an oxymoron," Wray said. "They are trying to make a profit and they know the industry. They will get away with whatever they can. And you can't regulate experience. Our seasoned officers recognize and respond to dangers and gang activity that their personnel would never see."
Coughlin acknowledges that his bill is unlikely to gain passage and vows to push for the privatization of prisons as each is approved in the capital budget. If he and other legislators are just as determined to supervise these companies, privately run prisons could prove to be effective and efficient alternatives to state-run institutions. The state could use the profit motive to influence performance, structuring financial incentives to reward companies whose prisons get high ratings in areas such as education, rehabilitation and violence prevention.
But if the legislature does not vigilantly supervise private prison operators, the violence at Youngstown might be repeated.