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Arizona speaker reveals private prison fiasco

Caroline Isaacs
Caroline Isaacs spoke to 75 people at Keene State College during her 3-day New Hampshire speaking tour. Photo: Arnie Alpert / AFSC

A Warning for New Hampshire

Don’t follow Arizona down the path of prison privatization, New Hampshire residents were warned last week by Caroline Isaacs, an activist and researcher from the American Friends Service Committee’s office in Tucson.

Speaking September 4 to 6 at public events in Concord, Keene, Nashua, and Lancaster, Isaacs described the actual cost and performance of eleven Arizona prisons owned and run by three corporations that have each submitted proposals to build and operate a major new prison facility in New Hampshire. 

Isaacs said that when Arizona, which already had five prisons run by the GEO Group and the Management and Training Corporation, invited bids for cells to hold an additional 5000 prisoners, the AFSC took two actions.  First, it sued the state to uphold a statute requiring it to compare the performance of public and private prisons.  Second, AFSC decided to investigate the questions themselves.

“You would think there would be lots of data on the track record of those corporations,” she told a couple dozen people squeezed into a parlor at the Nashua Unitarian Universalist Church on September 5.  “But you’d be wrong.”

While the Arizona Department of Corrections has compared the cost of private and public prisons (and found the private ones to be more expensive), the state had not done a comprehensive analysis of performance factors such as safety issues, recidivism rates, and quality of rehabilitation programs.    Neither does the state monitor performance at six prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America which hold prisoners in Arizona under contracts with federal agencies and other states. 

Problems with cost, public safety, and accountability

In a series of presentations to groups that included religious leaders, corrections workers (including a mid-level official of one of the private prison operators), elected officials and candidates for public office, college students, and community activists, Isaacs outlined problems in the areas of cost, public safety, and accountability.  

As an illustration, Isaacs described an incident in which three prisoners escaped from the MTC-operated prison in Kingman in 2010 and later killed two tourists in New Mexico.  The state’s investigation found broken alarms, burned-out lights, tools and keys unaccounted for, and an inexperienced staff.  A report revealed similar problems -- 157 of them -- at all the privately run prisons in the state.  A year later, Isaacs said, many problems remained unaddressed. 

To achieve cost savings, she said, private prisons offer lower pay and fewer benefits than do public ones.  That leads to quick workforce turnover and high staff vacancy rates, both of which contribute to lower quality services and less capacity to respond to the types of problems which frequently occur in a prison environment.   And they don’t even lower costs to the public, she said.

In three years covered by the state’s own analysis, Arizona overpaid more than $10 million to the private prison companies.  “The bottom line is we were losing money,” Isaacs said.

Private prison operators are accountable to their CEOs and shareholders before they are accountable to the public, she stressed.  “You can’t send a Freedom of Information Act request to CCA,” she said. 

A moral precipice

Prison privatization also raises profound ethical questions, Isaacs stressed.  “Is it right for a for-profit corporation to make money from incarceration?  How does the profit motive affect a company’s incentive to rehabilitate offenders?  Is privatization an abdication of a fundamental state government responsibility?,” she asked.  

And as for AFSC’s lawsuit, the state responded by deferring its 5000-bed private prison proposal and later released its first-ever report.  Then the pro-privatization legislature repealed the law requiring the state to compare the performance of private and public prisons! 

The New Hampshire Departments of Corrections and Administrative Services, with help from a private consultant, are currently evaluating proposals from four private companies (CCA, GEO, MTC, and Hunt Group) to build and operate New Hampshire’s prisons.   Although the contents of the bids are still confidential, the names of the bidders and some details of their proposals have become public. 

No companies expressed interest in a women’s prison.  But four companies submitted bids to build and operate a men’s prison or a “hybrid” facility which would hold both men and women.  All the bids presumably also include an option in which the company would build and own the prison but lease it to the state.  

CCA has revealed it is looking at potential prison sites in the towns of Hinsdale, Lancaster, and Northumberland.  MTC is reported to be working with a Manchester developer who has rights to property on Hackett Hill Road.  Hunt Group (a real estate management firm which since its proposal was submitted has taken over Carter Goble Lee and taken the name CGL Management Group) is working in partnership with LaSalle on a proposal to build a new prison on the site of the existing men’s prison in Concord.   GEO Group has not divulged where it proposes to locate a prison. 

Isaacs’ report, “Private Prisons, the Public’s Problem: a Quality Assessment of Arizona’s Private Prisons,” was released in February 2012.  The report, which includes detailed information about the performance of CCA, GEO, and MTC in that state, revealed “widespread and persistent problems in private facilities around safety, lack of accountability, and cost.”

“The record these corporations have created is the best way to predict what would happen if any of them gained control of prisons here,” said Arnie Alpert, the AFSC’s New Hampshire Program Coordinator.

Privatization proposals are now under scrutiny

William McGonagle, New Hampshire’s Deputy Commissioner of Corrections, says he has read the AFSC report and called it “one more piece of information that we are using” in its evaluation of the proposals.

MGT of America, the consulting firm helping the state departments review the private prison bids, is expected to complete its report by October 5.  Any contract with a private prison company would have to be approved by the governor and the Executive Council.  

Isaacs’ speaking tour was sponsored by the New Hampshire office of the AFSC with local events organized by the UNH Law School Social Justice Institute, the Criminal Justice Studies Program at Keene State College, the Social Justice Committee of the Nashua Unitarian Universalist Church, the State Employees Association, and the NH League of Women Voters.

“Caroline Isaacs was right on target,” said Peg Fargo of the NH League of Women Voters, who organized a presentation by Isaacs at a Concord retirement community.  “Having facts about the current situation in Arizona clarifies the issues we face in New Hampshire.” 

In addition to her public talks, Isaacs appeared as a guest on “The Attitude” with Arnie Arnesen on WNHN Radio and spoke to several other reporters and newspaper editors.   

Organizations joining AFSC in an effort to block New Hampshire from following Arizona’s example include the State Employees Association, the NH League of Women Voters, the NH Civil Liberties Union, the NH Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, and the Prison Concerns Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.    The NHPrisonWatch web-site provides background information on the issue, plus petitions to sign, fact sheets to download, and contact info for elected officials.  

Links to Media Coverage of the Caroline Isaacs Speaking Tour

Concord Monitor

Associated Press

Coos County Democrat

NH Sunday News

Nashua Telegraph

AFSC releases report on private prisons in Arizona
February 15, 2012 the American Friends Services Committee’s Arizona office released an extensive...

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