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The reality of for-profit prisons

prisoner behind a barcode jail
Photo: Lance Page/t r u t h o u t

While New Hampshire’s corrections department reviews proposals from private companies seeking to build and operate its prisons, the state’s residents are learning how prison privatization has played out elsewhere—namely, in Arizona.

Arizona has embraced prison privatization. Currently, five state prisons are run by private companies, housing 13% of the prison population, and the state recently signed a contract for an additional 1,500 beds. Arizona is also home to six prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America, which imports prisoners from other states and from the federal government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Arizona’s track record with for-profit prison companies shows problems with accountability and public safety—not to mention that they don’t save the state money, says Caroline Isaacs, program director for AFSC’s Tucson office.

Caroline has worked on criminal justice reform in her state since the mid-1990s. Her research and mobilization against for-profit prisons has put her at the forefront of the movement to stop prison privatization.

At a series of public presentations in New Hampshire in early September, she shared insight from her work in Arizona, which has included publishing a report on private prisons and suing Arizona to uphold its statute to compare the performance of public and private prisons.

Three companies bidding for contracts in New Hampshire—GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), the Management and Training Corporation, and the Corrections Corporation of America—currently run prisons in Arizona.

Arnie Alpert, program coordinator with AFSC in New Hampshire, organized the speaking tour so that his state could learn firsthand from Arizona’s experience.

“The record these corporations have created is the best way to predict what would happen if any of them gained control of prisons here,” he says.

Caroline visited regions of the state that one company is considering as potential prison sites. A diverse audience came out to hear the presentations; attendees included religious leaders, corrections workers, elected officials, candidates for public office, college students, and community activists.

In addition to walking her audience through a litany of documented problems, incidents, and contradictions that reveal why private prisons are hurting—not helping—the criminal justice system in Arizona, Caroline stressed the moral issue at hand.

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

The fact that Arizona has not comprehensively analyzed the performance of its private prisons is significant—there are no data to measure recidivism rates or quality of rehabilitation programs, and little knowledge of safety issues. For their part, the prison corporations are accountable to their shareholders, not to the public, even though their funding comes from taxpayers, she pointed out.

Caroline authored the AFSC report that filled this gap in analysis where data were available, identifying serious problems stemming from staffing and security practices.

What the state has analyzed itself are costs—and what it found is that private prisons cost more to operate than state-run prisons.

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

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

MGT of America, the consulting firm helping New Hampshire review the private prison bids, is expected to submit a report to the Department of Administrative Services by Oct. 5. By mid-November, the department will produce another report, which would become the basis for public discussion. Any contract with a private prison company would have to be approved by the governor and the Executive Council.

Arizona prison report

Detailing the safety, quality, and cost of private prisons in Arizona, this is the first-ever systematic study of all for-profit prisons operating in the state. Released in February 2012, this report reveals widespread and persistent problems in private facilities around safety, lack of accountability, and cost.