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A group opposed to private prisons issues a scathing report

If Arizona's prison population is on the decline, why does the state continue to waste money on private prisons?

That's one question the American Friends Service Committee is asking in a report it issued last week that examines Arizona's relationship with the private-prison industry. The report also documents the industry's abuses, safety issues, costs and severe lack of transparency when compared with public facilities.

The AFSC is a Quaker group that works on criminal-justice reform, and the Tucson office is focusing on the private-prison industry in Arizona.

Caroline Isaacs, director of the Tucson office and author of the report, said it is a comprehensive document that includes 2010 security-inspection data left out of an Arizona Department of Corrections report issued in December.

In the AFSC report, released at a Feb. 15 news conference, Isaacs accuses the state of "deliberately" obscuring information that "cast private prisons in a negative light."

The ADOC report, according to Isaacs, was issued only after the AFSC sued the state to force compliance with a two-decade-old law that requires the ADOC to review private prisons.

Although the lawsuit was dismissed, the ADOC completed the report and noted the decline in the prison population. The agency then cancelled a request for proposals for 5,000 private-prison beds. However, a new RFP for 2,000 private-prison beds was issued in February.

ADOC spokesperson Bill Lamoreaux did not respond to requests for comment.

Isaacs claimed the current incarceration numbers don't support the need for additional private-prison beds. Arizona has experienced its "lowest (prison-population) growth rates on record," Isaacs said, citing the ADOC's own projections that the state will have zero growth in 2012 and 2013.

Isaacs noted that 13 percent of the state prison population is housed in private facilities, which is the 11th-highest percentage in the country.

"Arizona is wasting money on prison privatization," she added. "In many cases, it costs more than the public equivalent."

Highlighting the Feb. 15 press conference was a giant check made out to the private-prison industry for $10 million, the amount that prison-reform advocates say Arizona has overpaid for private prisons from 2008 to 2010, when compared to public facilities run by the ADOC.

Isaacs said that if the 2,000 private medium-security beds are constructed as requested by ADOC in the February RFP, Arizona taxpayers will pay an estimated $38 million a year for those beds, which is $6 million a year more than would be spent on publicly owned facilities.

However, the private-prison industry isn't "content with a giant check," Isaacs said: The industry is "looking for a blank check."

At the press conference, Democratic state Rep. Chad Campbell provided information on six bills he's introduced as part of an effort to force private prisons to be as transparent as public prisons regarding public records, and to force adherence to the same safety standards used in public prisons. Campbell said he also wants to create a legislative study committee to examine private prisons in Arizona.

"Getting information is very hard," Campbell said, referring to a recent House Appropriations Committee meeting at which he asked ADOC director Charles Ryan about cost and safety issues involving private prisons.

"He could not answer any of those questions," Campbell said, adding that he doubts his bills will even get a hearing in this year's Legislature.

Isaacs' report included an examination of six private prisons in Pinal County that are run by the Corrections Corporation of America. The facilities house prisoners from California, Hawaii and other states, as well as federal immigration detainees, but they were not subject to the ADOC audit, because the prisons do not have contracts with the state.

A proposed 5,000-bed CCA prison development in Tucson, which would be located south of the state prison facility off Wilmot Road, would probably not have a contract with the state, either. The project, which is part of a larger residential and commercial development, was approved by the Pima County Board of Supervisors on a 4-1 vote during a 2010 zoning modification. Supervisor Richard Elías voted against it, citing private-prison issues, specifically questions about what types of prisoners would be housed at the facility. (See "Prison Problems," Sept. 16, 2010.)

Isaacs' report notes that the six CCA prisons in Pinal County are not required by state law to contact authorities regarding a death in custody, an escape or a riot. Because of the lack of transparency, Isaacs said, the AFSC had to get some of the information in its report from other public resources, including California's Office of the Inspector General, since California has prisoners in these facilities.

There are 5,680 private-prison beds contracted with the state in Arizona; more than 39,000 inmates are housed in state public facilities. However, the number of prisoners housed in Arizona in facilities without contracts with the state is unavailable. Isaacs said CCA will not release that information.

The report notes that there have been 157 security failures in last year in the five private prisons with state contracts. Security failures also include six escapes within the past 10 years. One of those—a 2010 escape of three inmates from a Kingman medium-security facility owned by Management and Training Corp.—later resulted in two civilian deaths.

According to the report, security violations in the first three months of 2011 included malfunctioning cameras, doors and alarms, as well as holes in fences. Three CCA prisons had incidents involving alarms with no audible signals, and two nonfunctioning security cameras.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen didn't respond to requests for comment.

Former private prison inmate Dante Gordon spoke at the press conference about his experience in the Kingman facility. Gordon said he was hit in the head during a racially motivated riot, when a group of about 80 white-supremacist prisoners attacked a group of 25 African-American prisoners in May 2010.

During the riot, Gordon said, guards were dressed in riot gear but never intervened. When African-American inmates asked why, the guards explained they were "told to stand down."

Gordon said he was given synthetic morphine for his injuries, but claims he was not taken to a hospital. He said that when his mother sent a letter to prison officials asking about his well-being, she was told that he wasn't a victim of a racial attack and that he received 17 follow-up medical visits, which included brain scans.

Gordon said none of that was true. Instead, it took 48 days for him to see a physician.

More by Mari Herreras

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