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Private Prisons in Arizona More Costly and Less Safe

Cambridge Healing Center
Photo: Shayan Sanyal

Tucson:  Preliminary results of an upcoming report released December 20, 2011 by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) contains potentially explosive findings on the cost, safety, and accountability of private prisons in Arizona.

When it came to light that the state had failed to complete a statutorily-required performance review of state and private prisons, AFSC undertook an analysis of its own. The Quaker group previously filed suit to prevent the Department of Corrections from awarding any contracts for new private prisons until the state completes a statutorily-required review of the performance of existing for-profit prisons Arizona.

The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) later announced plans to release its review by January 2011, and pledged not to award contracts until it is completed. The Department asked the private prison vendors to extend their bids to December 22.

AFSC Director, Caroline Isaacs, who authored the group’s report, said AFSC was concerned that the Department of Corrections may release its report and sign a contract for a new prison during the busy holiday season, avoiding public scrutiny and cutting short any debate. “If building more private prisons is really the right thing to do—if the state can prove that they are safe, cost effective, and are providing quality services—then why would they make the announcement when nobody is paying attention?”

The organization has called on the Department to hold off on awarding contracts until a meeting can be arranged to present the findings of AFSC’s research.

The group’s report reaffirms state data showing that prison populations are declining and ADC cost analyses that prove the for-profit prisons waste money on each bed.  But Isaacs indicated that some of the original data in AFSC’s report led to new security findings that are quite disturbing. The report will include data on private prisons in Arizona that do not contract with the state, and therefore would not be within the scope of the ADC report.  There are six prisons operated by Corrections Corporation of America that house prisoners from other states (such as Hawaii and California) and the Federal government (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).  There have been serious problems in these facilities, including riots, deaths, and abuses of prisoners.

AFSC’s analysis found patterns of serious safety lapses in all the private prisons for which data was available.  Together, this data demonstrates a set of problems endemic to the industry and could lead to future tragedies like the Kingman escapes. Under-trained guards combined with poor state oversight leads to assaults, disturbances, and riots. For-profit prison staff members are unprepared, or unwilling, to intervene in these events, and risk losing control of the facility. Insufficient rehabilitation programs, educational opportunities, or jobs for the prisoners provide idle time for conflicts to brew.  The result is facilities that are unsafe for the people living and working inside them, as well as the surrounding community.