By Sal Nuzzo

For several years, JMI has engaged in criminal justice policy, advocating for reforms that seek to protect public safety and properly steward taxpayer dollars. One simple but overlooked statistic is more than 90 percent of incarcerated individuals will eventually be released. Whether we accept it or not, their experiences while incarcerated impact whether they become productive citizens or reoffend.

So it was with a cautious eye I decided to examine an element of the system that, while small in scope, can teach a thing or two to policymakers seeking to reform a system plagued with challenges – the idea that the private sector may provide an effective and efficient complement to our state-run facilities.

I was a private prison novice. I heard stories: private prisons supposedly exist to profit from incarcerating human beings. JMI hadn’t tackled the topic because the number of facilities and inmates being held in private facilities is relatively small. Then I was fortunate enough to tour the Graceville Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility. In a word: wow.

Graceville lives up to its name, a positive and hope-filled environment marked by something I wasn’t prepared for – kindness and respect. It looks more like a university than a prison. In fact, to my amazement, it has an actual university inside its walls. The professionals managing the facility are creating better people and citizens, which helps us all.

I have immense respect and admiration for those who work in our state-run prisons. Their jobs overflow with pressures I can’t comprehend, and they work as best they can within a system needing reform. Nevertheless, I truly believe those overseeing our state-run prisons could incorporate some of the best elements of Graceville and other privately contracted facilities.

Graceville is run by GEO Group, a corrections firm that has had its share of negative headlines. Yes, GEO has been at the center of debates over private prisons this campaign season. Yet I can personally attest: the media-created image of private prisons is riddled with misconceptions.

That was clear the moment I stepped inside Graceville. Clean, well run, and with a supportive atmosphere between those working in the facility and those incarcerated within it. Though it’s clear who is in charge, inmates and officers speak to one another with respect.

Even the way they frame basic terminology speaks to the dignity of the human beings incarcerated: at Graceville, it’s corrections officers, not guards. The place itself is a correctional rehabilitation facility, not a correctional facility.

The emphasis on helping inmates become productive citizens is clear. Graceville is the birthplace of GEO’s Continuum of Care, which focuses on providing services that smooth the transition into society. From the period of 12 months from release to 12 months post-release – the model illustrates how to invest money ($10 million a year) in actual corrections – rather than simple warehousing.

What struck me most was the relentless focus on education. I hadn’t fathomed that a prison, of all places, could contain something like a university. Yet Graceville somehow does. An innovative partnership with Ashland University in North Carolina has enabled Graceville to create its own educational institution, offering two and four-year degree programs to those incarcerated.

I saw classrooms filled with smart boards, white boards, computers, and other academic enhancements. Classes of 25-30 students who engaged with teachers like any other college setting. The student-inmates themselves were impressive – one proudly telling us about the communications degree he’s pursuing. I thought to myself: this guy seems more like a spokesman for the prison than a prisoner.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from my experience, it’s this: private prisons are doing a much better job than you think. In our advocacy for limited government, free markets, and private sector solutions to public policy issues, there are a wealth of opportunities for our publicly run facilities to learn from the strategies undertaken in private facilities.

I challenge anyone who thinks differently to see the results in person.

Sal Nuzzo is Vice President of Policy at The James Madison Institute.