Morgan Loew, CBS 5 News
POSTED: 1:57 pm MST August 31, 2010
UPDATED: 3:11 pm MST August 31, 2010
PHOENIX -- A July prison break in Kingman, Ariz., brought a local and national attention to the state's private prisons.
But a CBS 5 News investigation discovered records of inmates in the for-profit facilities of which state Department of Corrections are unaware.
In the early morning of Sept. 17, 2007, two inmates overpowered a guard and used ladders to climb out of a prison in Florence.
Both were convicted murderers, including one who killed a man with a machete, according to prison records.
"I just think they took the opportunity because it was there," said former guard Robert McDonald.
McDonald, who worked at the Florence prison, attributed part of the problem to the fact the facility is a private, for-profit prison.
"Night shift was always the weakest scheduled shift because of staffing," McDonald said.
The surprising fact isn't that the prison break involved the machete murderer, but that neither the Department of Corrections nor any other law enforcement agency in Arizona was aware he was there.
The escapees committed their crimes in Washington state but were sent to a privately-run prison in Arizona that houses out-of-state inmates.
There are at least three of these prisons operating in Arizona, and not even the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections knows who is locked up in them.
The CBS 5 investigation found inmates such as Byran Uyesugi, who was convicted of murdering seven people in Hawaii in 1999, the worst mass murder in the state's history. He is an inmate at a private prison in Eloy.
There is no Arizona law that requires private prisons to report who they hold.
Bill Brotherton was an Arizona state senator in 2006 and sponsored two bills that would have reined in some of the freedom private prisons enjoy.
"One of the pieces of legislation was just to say nobody can import murderers or sexual offenders to the state of Arizona," he said. "You keep your people. We've got enough of our own. We don't want any more."
Neither bill passed, Brotherton said. "I had a hearing on one in committee. Couldn't get a hearing on the other one. They died," he said.
Brotherton found himself against a brick wall the private prison industry has created at the state Capitol.
Records show that from 2001 to 2004 the companies that run private prisons and their lobbyists contributed $77,000 to powerful state lawmakers, and have contributed even more since then.
"These companies have been buying influence in the Legislature for decades, really," said social justice advocate Caroline Isaacs, whose job includes monitoring the industry for the American Friends Service Committee.
She said big state contracts and loose regulations combine to make Arizona the "promised land" of private prisons.
Prison companies are exploring new locations in Globe, Benson, Prescott Valley, Florence, Tucson and the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation.
"They've been very busy running around the state talking to these various town councils and county zoning commissions getting land rezoned for correctional usage," Isaacs said.
A prison break in Kingman in July that drew national attention and a nationwide manhunt for three escaped convicts and an accomplice put a temporary stop to those prison expansion plans.
Even some of the Legislature's top supporters of private prisons now say it's time to enact "some" regulation of prisons that house out-of-state inmates.
State Rep. John Kavanagh said, "I think the major requirement is that we get to ensure that the custody level of the prison matches the custody level of the prisoner."
Kavanagh stopped short of saying there should be limits on who these prisons house in Arizona, which means convicts like the machete murderer from Washington and the mass murderer from Hawaii will continue to call Arizona home.
Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the private prisons that hold inmates from other states, issued a statement that reads, in part:
"We cannot support regulations that would result in the closing of facilities and the loss of hundreds of jobs in Arizona."