La. firm says prison escapes led to changes

by Bob Ortega - Aug. 10, 2011 12:00 AM The Arizona Republic

Arnol Suazo and Olvin Aguilar carefully destroyed all their mail to avoid leaving any names or addresses in their cells that authorities might use to track them. Then, just before 4 a.m. on July 5, while taking out the trash during breakfast kitchen detail at the Jackson Parish Correctional Center, they dashed for the fence, scrambled over razor wire and disappeared into the Louisiana woods.

The two convicted robbers were the 15th and 16th escapees over the past seven years from private prisons run by LaSalle Southwest Corrections, of Ruston, La. LaSalle, which operates 12 prisons in Texas and Louisiana, is the smallest of the four companies bidding for a contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections. The state is holding public hearings this week and next on plans to award contracts to build prisons for 5,000 private-prison beds. LaSalle is looking for only a piece of that pie. The privately owned company proposes to build a 1,000-bed facility near Winslow.

Suazo and Aguilar were recaptured after six days on the run, less than 10 miles from the prison.

"We had the dogs after them," said LaSalle managing partner Billy McConnell, "and it rained and we lost the trail; if it hadn't been for the rain we would have caught them earlier."

While most prisons systems, both state and private, experience escapes, there do not appear to be comprehensive and directly comparable statistics available.

But critics of private-prison companies point to their safety record in part because they question whether states have enough oversight to ensure contractors are operating safely.

After the escape, McConnell said, LaSalle "made some changes in our procedures to keep that from happening again." He declined for security reasons to provide details. As for some of the other escapes, McConnell noted that five of them were minimum- security inmates who walked away from outside work crews. He said that none of the escapes led to anyone outside being hurt, and that in each case, LaSalle reviewed its policies and procedures to prevent similar future escapes.

Two years ago, after an escape from LaSalle's Burnet County Jail in Texas, a surprise inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found several female inmates, including one who was pregnant and another with bipolar disorder, who said they weren't receiving prescribed medications. Inspectors found no record that any of the 500 inmates at the facility had ever received any medications, said the commission's executive director, Adan Munoz. The jail also was cited for not submitting an emergency-situation operational plan, which would detail response plans for escapes and riots.

McConnell said LaSalle addressed both issues within 30 days, and that the jail subsequently gained accreditation from the American Correctional Association. The ACA sets voluntary national standards for correctional facilities; companies often seek accreditation to show they meet such standards. For example, Management and Training Corp., which operates Arizona's Kingman prison, sought and received ACA accreditation this year after correcting security flaws and other problems that contributed to the escape of three prisoners there a year ago.

LaSalle is owned by the families of McConnell and his brother-in-law, Pat Temple. The partners started out running a family business building schools, fire stations and nursing homes. In 1995, the company won a bid to build a prison in Alexandria, La., which led to additional contracts and the decision to run as well as build prisons. The company's 12 prisons have a capacity of 8,100 inmates. By comparison, the three other companies bidding on the Arizona contracts are three to 10 times as large.

McConnell said LaSalle felt that 1,000 beds "would be in our comfort zone." The company has sent representatives to Winslow several times, said Mayor Robin Boyd.

"Overall, we have a positive reaction," Boyd said. "With the economy the way it is, any opportunity for jobs is welcome."

Winslow's city manager proposed a resolution supporting LaSalle, and the City Council was expected to vote on the matter Tuesday.

However, not everyone in Winslow is delighted with the idea of adding another prison near the existing state facility south of town.

"It's not good for Winslow," said Marie LaMar, a longtime local activist who was instrumental in the redevelopment of the La Posada Hotel, a National Historic Landmark.

LaMar, 83, expressed concern about the caliber of the jobs the prison would bring and whether it would prove an economic burden rather than a benefit.

Judy Howell, a business owner and former City Council member, expressed concern over whether a new prison would cost local taxpayers.

"We'll have to upgrade the water-treatment and sewage facilities, because we don't have the capacity," she said. "Most of the jobs will go elsewhere, because we don't have the workforce, and it'll put a strain on our infrastructure."