Arizona inmate escape puts spotlight on state private prisons
Questions arise over safety standards, taxpayer savings
by Casey Newton, Ginger Rough and JJ Hensley - Aug. 22, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Arizona puts more of its inmates into privately run prisons every year, even though the prisons may not be as secure as state-run facilities and may not save taxpayers money.
Lawmakers began using private prisons to ease overcrowding and have supported their use so aggressively that today, one in five Arizona inmates is housed in a private facility.
Many inmates from other states also are housed in private prisons in Arizona, but the state has little information about who they are and limited oversight of how they are secured.
The state has 11 privately operated prisons.
A high-profile escape of three Arizona inmates last month from a Kingman-area private prison, which spurred a nationwide manhunt and is believed to have resulted in two murders, raises questions about the industry's growth and the degree of state oversight.
The last fugitives in that escape were caught Thursday, and the state's prison director has promised changes to the private sites that house Arizona inmates.
State leaders in recent years have pushed for more privatization and have blocked efforts to regulate the industry, which has invested heavily in local lobbying and contributed to political campaigns.
Last year, officials approved a plan to hand over the operation of nearly every state prison to private companies. The plan was repealed only after no credible bidder came forward. This year, lawmakers approved 5,000 new private-prison beds for Arizona prisoners.
Data suggest that the facilities are less cost-effective than they claim to be. A cost study by the Arizona Department of Corrections this year found that it can often be more expensive to house inmates in private prisons than in their state-run counterparts.
A growing industry
Arizona's use of private prisons dates back to the early 1990s, when lawmakers, grappling with overcrowding in state facilities, authorized the construction of a 450-bed minimum-security prison in Marana to house drug and alcohol abusers.
The prison is owned and operated by Management & Training Corp., the Utah-based company that also operates the Kingman facility where the three inmates escaped.
Since then, Arizona has increasingly relied on for-profit operators to manage its own inmates. It also has allowed private companies to import prisoners from other states.
Rapid growth began in 2003 and the years immediately following, when Arizona was again wrestling with prison overcrowding.
To ease the shortage, Republican lawmakers agreed to build 2,000 new prison beds, compromising with a reluctant Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, to make half of them private.
Around the same time, nearly a dozen other states grappling with the same issues began shipping their inmates to private facilities elsewhere in the country.
Arizona, with cheap land and a receptive political climate, became a go-to destination for private-prison operators, who began accepting inmates from as far as Washington and Hawaii.
Today, Arizona houses 20.1 percent of its prisoners in private facilities, according to state data from July. Exactly how many inmates are here from other states is unclear.
Last year, lawmakers took the unprecedented step of exploring the privatization of almost the entire Arizona correctional system, passing a bill that would have turned over the state's prisons to private operators for an up-front payment of $100 million. The payment would have helped the state close a billion-dollar budget gap.
The bill, which also included a host of changes related to the state's budget, was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, but the language relating to prison privatization was repealed in a later special session.
The state now has an open contract for the construction and operation of 5,000 new private-prison beds.
Arizona's reliance on private facilities coincides with operators' increasing national political activity in hiring lobbyists and donating to political campaigns.
The ties between the companies and Arizona elected officials - which go back nearly a decade - have become a campaign issue in this year's gubernatorial race.
Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest operator of private prisons, runs six in Arizona, three of which house inmates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Brewer's critics have suggested that she signed Senate Bill 1070, and has advocated for privatization of some prisons, in part to benefit CCA's bottom line.
Democrats have called on Brewer, a Republican, to fire "aides" associated with the prison company. That includes HighGround, a Phoenix consulting and lobbying firm managing Brewer's gubernatorial campaign. The firm counts CCA among its clients.
Brewer's official spokesman, Paul Senseman, also used to lobby for CCA.
Campaign finance reports filed earlier this year show that eight executives with CCA contributed $1,080 of the $51,193 in seed money Brewer received for her gubernatorial campaign.
CCA also gave $10,000 to the "Yes on 100" campaign, which backed a temporary, 1-cent-on-the-dollar increase in the state's sales tax. Brewer was the chief advocate for the tax, which was approved by voters in May.
In an interview with The Arizona Republic, Brewer said those connections have not influenced her policy decisions. She said she never felt pressured by any of her advisers.
"It's absolutely political posturing and rhetoric," Brewer said. "I find it very disappointing. We have a bed shortage here in Arizona, and we have to come up with some way to incarcerate (criminals). The best way, the least expensive way, is to do it with private prisons."
The industry's political connections have extended to other Arizona politicians.
According to a 2006 report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the private-prison industry gave to the campaigns of 29 of 42 Arizona lawmakers who heard a 2003 proposal to increase state private-prison beds.
Between 2001 and 2004, the industry contributed $77,267 to Arizona's legislative and gubernatorial candidates, the vast majority through lobbyists paid to represent their interests at the Legislature.
In most cases, donations ranged from a couple of hundred dollars to as much as $2,500.
The state Department of Corrections has varying levels of oversight of Arizona's private-prison network.
Some prisons house criminals convicted in Arizona. The Corrections Department regulates those facilities, though private-prison critics question whether those facilities maintain the same safety standards as their state-run counterparts.
Other private prisons house inmates from other states or on behalf of the federal government. Arizona does not dictate what kinds of inmates they may accept, nor the manner in which they are secured.
In those situations, private-prison operators work with their outside-government partners on training specifications and other operational details.
They report to Arizona only the names, security classifications and number of inmates housed at their facilities. State statutes do not require private operators to provide Arizona officials details about the crimes the prisoners committed or escape data.
In 2007, two convicted killers sent from another state stole ladders from a maintenance building and climbed onto a roof at a private prison outside Florence. Brandishing a fake gun, they climbed over the prison walls and escaped to freedom.
One was caught within hours, but it was almost a month before the other was caught hundreds of miles away in his home state of Washington.
As with the Kingman breakout, the 2007 escape drew attention to the largely unregulated growth of private prisons in the state, particularly prisons that house other states' inmates.
To address security concerns, a bipartisan bill drafted by Napolitano's office in 2008 and introduced by Republican state Sen. Robert Blendu would have required private prisons to be built to the state's construction standards.
The proposal also would have ended the practice of private prisons importing murderers, rapists and other dangerous felons to Arizona. And it would have required the companies to share security and inmate information with state officials.
After an initial flurry of activity, the bill died.
"The private-prison industry lobbied heavily against that bill, and they were successful," said Michael Haener, Napolitano's lobbyist at the time.
Blendu later left the Legislature, and the bill was not reintroduced.
What little regulation private prisons have in Arizona stems from a series of escapes in the late 1990s.
In response, the Legislature passed a law requiring the reimbursement of law-enforcement costs from private-prison operators in the event of an escape.
Arizona laws also require companies to carry insurance to cover law-enforcement costs in cases of escape, to notify state officials when they bring new prisoners into the state and to return out-of-state prisoners to their home states to be released. But there are no penalties if the companies don't comply.
Notwithstanding lawmakers' concerns about security, private prisons gained favor in part because of the promised savings they could deliver to a cash-strapped and overcrowded prison system. Yet studies have questioned whether those savings are real.
In making their pitches, private-prison companies played on the desire of many lawmakers to shift more state services to the private sector.
Direct cost comparisons between for-profit and public prisons can be difficult, however.
According to the National Institute of Justice, private prisons tend to make much lower estimates of their overhead costs to the state for oversight, inmate health care and staff background checks.
Officials at public prisons often argue that the state winds up paying a higher cost for those services than is advertised, mitigating savings that private prisons are built to deliver.
A study this year by the Arizona Department of Corrections found that when various costs are factored in, it can be more expensive to house an inmate in a private prison than it is to house one in a state-run prison.
The cost of housing a medium-security inmate is $3 to $8 more per day in a private prison, depending on what assumptions are made about overhead costs to the state, the study found.
Travis Pratt, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, said there is no evidence that private prisons save government agencies money, even though they typically promise up-front savings.
To maintain profit margins, Pratt said, companies often cut back on staff training, wages and inmate services.
"Cost savings like that don't come without consequences," Pratt said. "And that can present a security risk that's elevated."
Odie Washington, a senior vice president at Management & Training Corp., acknowledged Thursday that the Kingman prison employed an inexperienced staff.
"We have a lot of very young staff that have not integrated into very strong security practices," Washington said.
Private-prison operators disagree with Pratt's assessment, contending that they can deliver services efficiently and safely.
"That's one of the more frustrating misconceptions out there for us that we have to repeatedly respond to," said Steve Owen, director of public affairs for Corrections Corporation of America.
Owen said it is CCA's "general experience" that private prisons can save states and the federal government 5 to 15 percent on operational costs. The company also can build facilities more cheaply, he said.
CCA is contractually required to meet or exceed training requirements that states they work for set for themselves, Owen said. In addition, the company has made sure its prisons in Arizona comply with accreditation standards put in place by the American Correctional Association, a Virginia-based trade group.
Many communities, meanwhile, eagerly welcome private prisons because the facilities generate jobs and economic activity. CCA prisons in Florence and Eloy, for example, employ 2,700 people. Last year, the company paid $26 million in property taxes, Owen said.
Lawmakers from both parties have called for hearings into what went wrong in Kingman. Presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry Goddard has said he would push to bring back the 2008 private-prison bill.
Goddard also is calling for an immediate re-evaluation of the system used to classify and place inmates in facilities.
The five-tiered system, which allows some violent criminals to migrate to lower-security facilities for good behavior, met with bipartisan criticism in the wake of the escapes.
Two of the three inmates who escaped from the medium-security Kingman prison had been convicted of murder.
Goddard said the three recent escapees never should have been in a medium-security prison.
Charles Ryan, director of the Department of Corrections, announced Thursday that the state would slow its bidding process for the 5,000 new private-prison beds pending additional review.
Brewer has said little publicly about the escape but told The Republic last week that she is committed to holding prison operators responsible for mistakes they made. She said she has ordered Ryan to conduct a "complete review to make sure that inmates are appropriately secured and in the right kinds of facilities."
While Brewer remains confident that private prisons are well suited to house less-violent offenders, she said: "What has happened is unacceptable, and I am absolutely pushing for more accountability."
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