A for-profit private maximum security prison could soon be coming to a community near you.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law House Bill 2010, which starts the bidding process to turn over Arizona Department of Corrections prisons, including maximum security facilities, to a private corporation in the name of cutting costs and generating revenue. Brewer previously vetoed the private prison bill in July. The private prison industry stands to make lots of money while the state gets some quick cash, but at what cost to us?
Private minimum security lockups may be fine for misdemeanors and DUIs, but a maximum security prison?
A Phoenix daily newspaper reported on July 29 that state corrections officials are worried about private prisons being able to handle Arizona's "most hardened criminals." On June 14, it was reported that Corrections Director Charles Ryan voiced concerns to Brewer in a letter questioning the ability of for-profit prisons to control volatile maximum security inmates. Private guards reportedly receive less pay and training than state officers.
Experts tell me 30 to 40 percent of Arizona's 40,000 prison inmates are associated with gangs that continue to grow both inside and outside of prison. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice reported the Mexican drug cartels, this country's "greatest organized crime threat," have established affiliations with street and prison gangs, and as much as 80 percent of crime is committed by gangs.
According to Frank "Paco" Marcell, a retired jail intelligence supervisor for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and a member of the National Major Gang Task Force Board of Directors, "The biggest threat to Arizona corrections are the gangs that control crime inside and outside of the prison. (State prisons) investigators are experts in dealing with prison gangs and are state-certified peace officers who work closely with other law enforcement agencies."
Private prison guards aren't Arizona peace officers.
On June 17, the FBI Violent Street Gang Task Force, which includes state prisons investigators, announced the indictment of 26 Arizona prison gang members on racketeering charges. Last month, they stopped the murder of a Phoenix resident by a prison gang.
Arizona's prison population has grown 60 percent since 1998.
The pitch for private prisons is they save money. But according to a Dec. 6, 2007, Tribune commentary titled "Private jails not the answer," by Gerald Sheridan, the sheriff's office's chief of custody, "The National Council on Crime and Delinquency conducted a review of privatization and found the average cost savings was about 1 percent, usually through lower labor costs. Cost benefits of privatization have not materialized to the extent promised. Government bears the burden of administering punishment and this responsibility should not be delegated to a for-profit company."
The state Corrections Department and the Arizona Department of Public Safety are equal partners in protecting us. For years, the Legislature has failed to properly oversee and fund DPS. Neglecting DPS has dangerously impacted the state. Arizona is known as America's gateway for organized crime and drugs.
Farming out public safety responsibilities to for-profit private prisons to save "about 1 percent" is another frightening example of the lack of understanding the governor and Legislature have regarding the threat dangerous inmates and organized crime gangs present to us.
Privatizing prisons is another sad chapter in Arizona's legislated devolution.
Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org [email@example.com].