Arizona's Private Prisons: A Bad Bargain
April 4, 2012
This article appeared in the April 23, 2012 edition of The Nation.
In mid-February, the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) released a report on the impact of private prisons in the state. Private Prisons: the Public’s Problem concluded that Arizona overpaid for private prison services between 2008 and 2010 to the tune of $10 million, and that the services it received were shoddy at best: malfunctioning alarm systems, fences with holes in them, staff who didn’t follow basic procedures and many other failings. All told, the state’s auditor general documented 157 serious security failings across five facilities that hold in-state prisoners. (There are three additional private prisons.) At least twenty-eight riots were also reported. (The report’s authors hesitated to give exact numbers on the latter, concluding that private prison administrators tried to hide evidence of riots from the public.)
Since 1987, Arizona’s Department of Corrections has been legislatively mandated to produce cost and quality reviews for its private prisons, in part to judge how they compare with state-run facilities. The data on costs were collected, but in recent years, it took a lawsuit by the AFSC for the Department of Corrections to release quality comparison data. Finally, in December it complied. The results were damning.
“The main purpose of a prison is to reduce crime,” said the AFSC’s report. “The only measurement available of how well a prison performs this function is its recidivism rates.” Yet, “none of the corporations operating in Arizona measure recidivism.” The report noted that at the private facilities there were higher staff turnover and lower staff qualifications, as well as more cases of violence than in state prisons.
One might think that, faced with evidence that the state isn’t getting enough bang for its buck, Arizona legislators would rethink their commitment to putting ever more prisoners into private facilities. Instead, in a move Orwellian even by the gutter standards of Arizona politics, they’ve simply tried to bar the state from collecting the evidence. On February 27 the legislature proposed a budget bill eliminating the requirement for a cost and quality review of private prison contracts. According to the AFSC, “The move would ensure that the public would have no way of knowing whether the state’s private prisons are saving money, rehabilitating prisoners, or ensuring public safety.”
Why have Arizona’s politicians taken this route? Part of the explanation may be that many of them have received large campaign contributions from private prison companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America. Although Democrats and Republicans have benefited, most of these influential dollars have gone to Republicans. These corporations have literally helped write legislation that is good for business (like SB 1070, the state’s notorious immigration bill, passed in 2010).
But it is also because around the country, conservatives are trapped in their own rhetoric. Anti-government fanaticism is basically a litmus test for the GOP base these days. If you support policies that result in extraordinarily high levels of imprisonment, as Republicans traditionally have—from “three strikes” to today’s immigration crackdown—but you refuse, with few exceptions, to raise taxes to fund prisons, by default you end up embracing a logic of privatization. Government responsibilities are farmed out to companies whose interests lie not in social obligation but in a desire to make a fast buck.
Since 1997 Arizona’s prison spending has increased from $409 million per year to more than $1 billion today. Yet the state is still playing catch-up: it never has enough money to pay for its incarceration obligations. That’s because Arizona’s prison population continues to soar; it’s currently at nearly 40,000—and rising fast. In an attempt to manage this growing population, the Department of Corrections has moved since 1986 to privatize services. Its current five-year plan notes that “with over 600 current contracts the Department uses private contractors for many functions, including private prisons that house inmates in-state; correctional health services” and much more.
Currently, more than 16 percent of the state’s prisoners are in private facilities that also play host to prisoners from states, like Hawaii, that have run out of prison beds and have farmed out their surplus to the lowest bidder. Other private facilities house wards of the US Marshals Service, mainly undocumented immigrants marked for deportation.
Arizona’s privatization schemes have become wackier in the face of recession budget woes. Legislators have sold off and then leased back the State Capitol building and pushed for the wholesale privatization of the prison system. The industry, however, is not interested. Private prisons profit only when they can cherry-pick the inmates—setting the conditions for those they’ll accept and rejecting violent or seriously ill inmates—and can make the state cover the hidden costs of running a prison, such as training drug-sniffing dogs and processing release paperwork.
Claims about the cost-effectiveness of private prisons are an illusion. As the AFSC report makes clear, private prisons cost as much as, if not more than, state-run facilities; they endanger public safety; and they result in a worrying level of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-staff violence. Instead of privatizing basic public services in an attempt to maintain incarceration rates without the tax base to support them, states like Arizona should have a sensible discussion about how best to reduce their stunningly high inmate population. It would be the fiscally prudent approach. It would also be the most ethical solution to America’s incarceration problem.