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Criticism of professors’ study grows as university finishes ethics review

Complaints of biased funding focus on two economics professors’ 2013 private-prison study.

Temple completed its review of an ethics complaint filed against two professors who conducted a controversial 2013 study but initially did not disclose their funding, a university spokesman said today. The professors were criticized when it was revealed that they received some funding from the industry they studied.

Simon Hakim and Erwin Blackstone, both economics professors, released a working paper of their study “Cost Analysis of Public and Contractor-Operated Prisons” in April 2013. Their report stated that private prisons “generate [12 to 58 percent] in long-run savings and help relieve overcrowding without sacrificing the quality of the services.”

A working paper, or incomplete version of the study, was circulated without disclosure of funding. According to Hakim’s Curriculum Vitae, some funding for the study came from the three-largest private prison companies in the country: Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group and MTC Training Corporation.

The professors also wrote op-eds that did not disclose the source of the funding.

After an informal complaint by Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the monthly criminal justice publication called Prison Legal News, the professors released an updated working paper in May 2013 with a one-sentence disclosure statement on the fourth page.

“The study received funding by members of the private corrections industry,” the sentence read. Friedmann wanted the disclosure placed on the first page to be more prominent, and said it should have included the funding sources. That led to his formal ethics complaint to the university in June 2013.

The complaint alleged that the professors had a conflict of interest, citing both their funding sources and the initial lack of transparency. A university spokesman told The Inquirer in June 2014 that Temple was reviewing the complaint.

A university spokesman told The Temple News today that the university had finished reviewing the complaint and had individually informed the professors and Friedmann of the result. Citing university policy not to comment on personnel matters, the spokesman would not say how the matter was addressed.

“Temple did not receive funds for the specific work under inquiry,” the spokesman said. “The authors of the study were partially funded by members of the private corrections industry.”

Blackstone and Hakim did not respond to a request for comment by The Temple News.

“When it appears as a working paper, it is not final,” Hakim told The Inquirer last month. “It is just for review purposes. A few weeks after, we made the disclosure that it was partially funded by the private prison industry.”

Color of Change, an online civil rights organization, started a petition against the study last week.

“[President Theobald] needs to make clear that Temple research is in the public interest and free from corporate agenda,” Matt Nelson, organizing director of the Color of Change campaign, told The Temple News in a phone interview. “Sometimes, university leaders see ‘acres of diamonds’ in corporate-funded research. Universities need to see that those diamonds are actually fool’s gold.”

“Saying it was ‘just a working paper’ is quite frankly bulls—t,” Rob Michlowitz, a former graduate research assistant of Blackstone’s, told The Temple News in an email.

Michlowitz, who signed the Color of Change petition, received a Master’s degree in economics from Temple and served as Blackstone’s graduate research assistant from 1987-1989.

“The economics profession conducts research off of working papers,” Michlowitz said. He also noted that he has “no axe to grind” with either professor, and said he left the university on good terms with both.

The study was also criticized in a recent letter published by the American Civil Liberties Union. Christopher Petrella, a researcher at the University of California Berkeley, wrote an open letter to one of the private-prison corporations that funded the study discussing what he argues are deficiencies in the research methods.

Petrella, a PhD student who is finishing his dissertation on for-profit prisons, told The Temple News that only focusing on the potential conflict of interest was “low-hanging fruit.”

“I think it’s a good argument,” Petrella said, “but it has limited shelf-life…I wanted to go beyond the original argument.”

Petrella’s letter discusses disparities in prisoner health care costs between public and private prisons.

In Petrella’s home state of California, special public prisons housing high-priority prisoners spend an average $93,000 per prisoner in a year. Private prisons spend about $9,000. Petrella said he believes the cost of prison health care was not adequately accounted for in Blackstone and Hakim’s study.

Spokesmen for the private prison corporation Petrella addressed the letter to, the Corrections Corporation of America, did not return requests for comment by The Temple News.

“This isn’t about attacking either professor or the study,” Petrella said. “It’s suggesting to CCA that they need to do their due diligence in referring to studies that may not be accurate.”

UPDATE:  Friedmann shared the letter with The Temple News. The letter, written by Interim Vice Provost for Research Michele Masucci, reiterated the spokesman’s point that the university did not receive funds for the study.

“Consistent with this information,” Masucci wrote, “many months ago we directed that correction be made to any publication that inaccurately attributed Temple’s connection to this work.”

The outcome of the ethics complaint was recently criticized by the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida non-profit and publisher of Prison Legal News. Friedmann serves as associate director of the HRDC.

“It would have been better had Temple released the results of its investigation,” Friedmann said in an HRDC press release.  Friedmann said it was “ironic” that Temple “has not fully disclosed the outcome of its investigation into my complaint against two of its faculty members who failed to fully disclose the source of their research funding.”

Joe Brandt can be reached at jbrandt@temple.edu or on Twitter @JBrandt_TU.

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