Corrections Has Suddenly Become A Booming, Profit-Making Business In America--Some Might Even Say Explosive, As The Situtation In Our Own Backyard Demonstrates.
The no-McDonald's-sized City of Eloy is the kind of place most people heading down I-10 will never visit unless they fall prey to the DPS speed trap near Picacho Peak and have to fight a ticket in court there. It's one of a handful of anonymous central Arizona burgs you can't even see from the interstate--the kind of place people only talk about when something there goes horribly wrong.
Eloy sits amid thousands of acres of bleak, retired farm land, all that remains of its brief glimpse of prosperity. During World War II, military demand turned cotton into a hot cash crop and Eloy into a boom town as local farmers and entrepreneurs plowed under the surrounding desert and irrigated it with cheap, seemingly plentiful ground water. Some locals even wanted to change the town's name to "Cotton City" as a tribute to its new-found prosperity.
It's a good thing they didn't, because when the war ended, both the demand for cotton and the water table plummeted, driving most of the area's farmers into bankruptcy and ensuring Eloy would forever remain Eloy.
Armida Flores, the town's mayor, is a quiet, modest woman who becomes a tenacious fighter when she sees her community of 7,500 threatened.
"I like everything about this place, the good and the bad," she says. "You can walk down the street here, and you know everybody and everybody knows you."
First elected to the council in 1986, Flores rose to prominence when she led the battle to prevent a shadowy company with rumored underworld connections from storing more than one million barrels of toxic sludge near Eloy. Today, she fights to bring jobs to a town with a 12-percent unemployment rate and a severely battered image.
On the bulletin board inside the storefront city hall, someone has pinned an article that ran in one of the state's largest newspapers a couple of years ago. It mentioned how Eloy was looking forward to a brighter future but was dogged by a reputation for losing out when it came to luring big employers. It talked about how a deal to bring a major recycling plant to nearby Red Rock had fallen through, and it discussed the town's misbegotten municipal golf course.
Built alongside I-10 near Toltec, officials hoped the $4 million course would put them on the map while bringing in badly needed revenues. Instead, it has turned into a financial sand trap, to the tune of about $350,000 a year, in a town where every dollar counts. City leaders have since put the course up for sale, but no one seems interested in buying it.
"That article said some very positive things about us, but it also portrayed the community as being a little bit gun shy," says Chris Zapata, Eloy's city manager. "That's probably correct."
Eloy was anything but gun shy four years ago when Kentucky-Based United/Concept, Inc., approached it with an offer to build a 1,000-bed private prison there. Finally, it seemed, a company with nothing to hide was interested in coming to town.
"We wanted that prison. It meant 300 jobs and a big boost to our tax base," says Flores. "I saw it as a clean industry, something that would really help the city."
Linda Miller, who would live a mile down the road from the prison, was skeptical.
"I was afraid to be so optimistic," Miller says. "I knew the city really needed the prison, but still..."
One of her biggest concerns was the pay United was offering its new guards--about $6 an hour. Miller asked Bill Sanbach, a United executive, how the company could ensure employees would do quality work on rent-a-cop wages.
Sanbach assured Miller the guards would train 40 hours to Federal Bureau of Prisons standards before ever setting foot in the prison. And, he said, they would undergo 40 hours of continuing training each year.
"They are not low-paid, low-skilled people," Sanbach said. "They are good, professional people."
Shortly after the $40-million prison opened last May, two prisoners clad in civilian clothing evaded the high-tech motion detectors lining the perimeter fence, cut their way to freedom with a pair of bolt cutters and disappeared into the night. They were nabbed by sheriff's deputies the next day. The incident raised some eyebrows, but was quickly dropped.
All was quiet until the evening of October 28, when 300 prisoners in the six-month old facility went on a rampage that took nine hours and a good chunk of local law enforcement muscle to bring under control.
After the last of the rioters had been locked down, the prison's dazed-looking warden, Julius Blanchard "J.B." Hopkins, addressed a crowd of reporters that had gathered in the shadow of the prison, which still was cloaked in smoke from burning mattresses inmates had heaped into bonfires in the recreation yard.
Hopkins claimed the prisoners, almost all of whom were Mexican nationals, were just antsy about the lack of Mexican food and Spanish-language television.
"They really had no gripe," Hopkins said as he squinted into the lights from television cameras. "They just wanted to be treated like men."
He added, "There are always going to be a few bumps in the road when you start up one of these facilities from scratch."
Three weeks later, United hit another bump when 200 inmates wielding bats, bricks and steel pipes injured five guards before being locked down. Suddenly, people all over Arizona were talking about Eloy.
One of those people was Jack Sanders, a former Eloy Detention Center supervisor who now works in a government-run prison. From his home in Tucson, Sanders watched as Hopkins explained to the TV reporters that the riots had caught everyone off guard.
"Hopkins told everybody he didn't see it coming," Sanders says. "If that's true, then he must not have been looking very hard."
Sanders, who would not allow his real name to be used, says he left shortly before the first riot "because I did not feel safe."
He says prisoners had staged at least two sit-down protests in the weeks before the riots, and he says the prison's green staff was ill-prepared to deal with the problems.
"Every day, it seemed like our orders were being countermanded," Sanders remembers. "There was no consistency, none. Nobody knew what they were supposed to do."
And Sanders says there is one more crucial fact Hopkins never mentioned: In the weeks before the first riot, almost a third of the Eloy prison's staff of 300 guards had jumped ship to go to work for a new privately-run prison up the road in Florence that began accepting inmates four days later.
Charles Blanchette, warden of the new Florence prison, verifies he hired "about 80 officers" away from Hopkins.
A look at the two companies' pay scales reveals why they might have left: Correctional Concepts of America, which runs the new Florence lockup, starts its guards out at around $9 an hour, which is comparable to what public prisons pay; at the time of the riot in Eloy, United was paying $5.85 an hour.
"You know what you get for $5.85 an hour?" asks Sanders. "You get people who have been fired from other places. You get the dregs. About half of them I did not consider trustworthy."
Sanders called United's training "a joke."
"They say they give two weeks of classroom training with two weeks of on-the-job training," he says. "But if they were ever short-staffed, they'd pull people out of the classroom, stick them in with the prisoners and call it on-the-job training."
Tom Cull, president of United, defends his company's pay and training by saying it meets standards drawn up in its contract with BOP.
And, as Cull is happy to point out, all the guards in Eloy received a 45-cent pay raise at the beginning of the year, bringing the pay for a new guard up to $6.33 an hour.
"We did that on our own," Cull says.
But even if Cull's company is holding up its end of the bargain, the standards it must meet are far lower than those the BOP sets for its own prisons. For example, BOP guards undergo thorough background checks and interviews that can take weeks to complete. Then they spend three weeks at the Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, before they ever set foot in a federal prison. Once there, they receive two-weeks of supervised on-the-job training.
The BOP also requires all of its own guards to carry firearms certification. According to Cull, only 10 percent of his company's guards are required to be handy with guns.
"You have to allow they'll do some things differently," says Tom Metzger, a BOP spokesman. "We would not pretend to suggest there is any one way to run a prison. If the public wants accountability...then that's something they need to think about."
Metzger would not turn over a copy of the BOP's contract with United, saying it would violate federal contracting procedures. Bonnie Sinsel, the BOP official who handled the contract, refused to comment.
However, Metzger says, the BOP does keep an officer full-time in Eloy to ensure United complies. The BOP has yet to turn over copies of that officer's reports.
On a drizzly, cold day shortly after the second riot, Warden J.B. Hopkins reluctantly agrees to meet with reporters.
"I think we've had enough media attention out here for a while," Hopkins says nervously. "But I'm planning a big media day in January where everybody can come out and take a look around."
From the outside, all visible traces of the damage wrought during the riot are gone. The steel doors leading into the prison's main control building--the ones the inmates had tried to smash through with rocks and pipes--have been replaced and covered with fresh coats of blue paint.
"I thought I left all this behind in Washington," Hopkins says of the dark clouds looming over the prison's gray, prefabricated concrete buildings.
Two days of constant drizzle have turned the barren ground inside the prison's perimeter fence into a quagmire--no outdoor activities for the inmates today, Hopkins notes--and it certainly won't do his cold any good.
"I just can't seem to shake it," he complains in his southern drawl. "It's been killin' me."
Tall and gaunt and clad in boots, a white western shirt and a bolo tie, Hopkins looks like he'd be more at home corralling cattle than men, which he has done for almost 25 years.
He began his career in corrections after serving as a Marine drill sergeant, then as a platoon leader in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Silver Star for bravery. After finishing his tour in 1969, Hopkins became a warrant officer and went to work in a Navy brig. He retired a few years ago as a lieutenant colonel and went to work for United.
Hopkins presses a buzzer and speaks his name and title into a microphone beside the blue steel door leading into one of the prison's four 250-man cell blocks. There is a crackly response from the small speaker, followed by the mechanical hum of the door unlocking to admit him. He steps into a concrete corridor, at the end of which stands another blue door. A guard lets him in, then returns to his control panel. Five doors radiate off the control room like the spokes on a wheel. On the other side of each door are the living quarters for 50 Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates.
"Let's go in here," Hopkins says, pointing to one of the doors. A guard admits him, locking the door behind Hopkins as he steps inside.
"Hello, men," he says as he waves toward a knot of khaki-clad prisoners slouched casually on rows of steel bleachers in the center of the room. They look down from the television anchored high on the wall above them, which blares Spanish-language television into the hard, concrete cell block. A few of them smile and nod sheepishly. Some shoot meaningful looks between one another. All of them look surprised to see him.
He crosses the common area and begins a quick inspection of the cells, apparently unbothered by the fact that, except for a lone guard, he's locked in a room with about 50 of the same men who would have been glad to get their hands on him a few weeks before.
"You can't worry about it," he says. "The last time a prisoner hit me was," he pauses to think about it, "1969, it was 1969. Some sailor took a swing at me."
After looking over several cells, Hopkins seems satisfied and asks to be let out. As he makes his way toward the exit, a guard in a stiff, poorly-fitting blue uniform steps into the corridor.
"Excuse me, sir?" the guard asks tentatively. "I hate to interrupt you right now, but..."
"Then don't," Hopkins says, cutting him off. His tone is deceptively cordial, and the guard is at a loss for a moment before he finally stammers an apology and walks away.
Once outside again, Hopkins summarizes his correctional philosophy between drags on a cigarette.
"You can't rehabilitate them, nobody can," he says, exhaling a cloud of blue smoke into the cool December air. "All you can do is treat them like men, give them some rules to live by and try to teach them to get along."
So why did he forfeit his retirement to run another prison?
"I don't know," he says. "I guess I just feel like I'm doing some good."
Hopkins could not have picked a better time to do some good. With 25 years of correctional experience under his belt, his future was virtually locked up.
Fifteen years ago, he wouldn't have been so fortunate. Prior to the early 1980s, privatized prisons like Hopkins' were not legal anywhere in the United States. They weren't really needed, either. From the early 1960s until the mid-1970s, the average state and federal inmate population hovered predictably around 205,000.
Then, something happened that would change the corrections picture drastically: Americans gave up on rehabilitation and started to get tough on criminals.
The prison population soared. By 1980, about 301,000 people were locked up in America--a 25 percent increase in just five years. By 1990, that number had swelled to around 710,000.
In 1989 alone, the growth in America's inmate population created the need for a new 700-bed jail and one 1,600 bed prison every week, at a cost of roughly $6 billion for the year.
Today, there are around 1.5 million prisoners in state and federal lockups. With passage of the new crime bill last August, which allocated $23 billion to put 100,000 new cops on the street, that number is sure to jump, placing an even greater strain on an already overburdened system.
"If you've got 100,000 more cops out there making arrests that stick, you're just bound to have a lot of new prisoners," muses Charles Blanchette, warden of the new 500-bed prison up the road in Florence that hired away a third of Hopkins' staff. "And you've got to put them somewhere."
Blanchette's company, Correctional Corporation of America, is one of the industry's largest--and oldest--private prison corporations. CCA was one of the first companies to win contracts for full-scale adult prisons back when privatization was limited to juvenile facilities, halfway houses and various support functions, like food service.
In the 11 years since winning those first contracts, CCA has grown into a corrections giant. With 22 prisons, including some in England, Australia and Puerto Rico, CCA has beds for roughly 13,000 prisoners. The company is even listed on the NASDAQ.
It was not easy for Blanchette's company to break into the incarceration business, says Charles Thomas, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida who has followed the privatization trend closely.
"Depending on the jurisdiction, there was and still is some tremendous resistance to privatization," Thomas says.
Like GM workers watching their high-paying jobs stream into Mexico, people working in state and federal prison systems feel threatened by private companies that usually do the same job for about 10 to 15 percent less, Thomas says.
But despite their objections, the prison crisis had grown so serious by the mid-1980s that politicians were willing to try just about anything.
"They didn't have a choice," Thomas says. "They were under pressure from voters to reduce spending, but at the same time, the prisons were filling up."
There are now some 17 other private prison companies, all of them jockeying for their share of prisoners. Last year, according to Thomas, private prison companies had beds for roughly 45,000 inmates.
"That's still a pretty small share of the market--about 2 percent," Thomas says. "But what's really significant is that the private prison population is growing five times as fast as the public prison population."
What started out as a cost-cutting experiment has quietly blossomed into one of America's fastest-growing industries. And with $7 billion in last year's crime bill allocated solely for prison construction, Thomas predicts even more companies will rush to cash in.
"Even if a company can get only a fraction of that, it's still a huge windfall for them," he says.
Ira Robbins is a criminology professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and one of privatization's harshest critics.
"We're talking about privatizing one of the most important pieces of our justice system," he says. "Where does it stop? Would we privatize the courts? The police? Where do you draw the line?"
He warns of disastrous consequences if privatization is not managed carefully.
"Private prison companies are more concerned with doing well than with doing good. One of my main objections is that they keep saying they can do a better job than the public sector, but the first thing they do is hire the same people they've been criticizing and pay them less.
"They don't fill all of their staff positions, they don't provide the programs they promised, then they turn around and say, 'Look, we saved you 15 percent.' "
Even Thomas, an advocate of privatization, agrees there will be problems if government isn't careful.
"Government has to be a smart buyer," he says. "What I fear is that government will overreact and get something that is cheap instead of cost effective.
"If you're about to have, say, brain surgery, you're not just looking for the lowest bidder. You should also have some interest in the quality of service.
"I guarantee you, if you were interested in building a 1,000-bed maximum-security prison, and you only wanted to spend $20 a day per inmate, you'd find a company that would be willing to do it. It's that competitive."
In Eloy, United gets $47 from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house a single inmate for a single day. They range from illegal aliens awaiting deportation hearings to illegal aliens who have committed felonies on U.S. soil. By the time they arrive in Eloy, some of them have spent up to five years behind bars.
Up the road in Florence, the U.S. Marshal's Service pays CCA $61--roughly 25 percent more--to house 250 pre-trial detainees who are relative newcomers to the prison system.
"They definitely get a more savvy con than we do over here," Blanchette says.
The Marshal's service, Thomas says, pays a premium for prison beds because it has none of its own.
"They don't want to get into the prison business, so they're willing to pay more," he says. "But the BOP has about 85,000 beds nationwide, so they pay less."
One state prison official, speaking on condition of anonymity, has another reason:
"The BOP doesn't really want Eloy to work," he says. "They're only doing it because politicians put pressure on them to save money. That's why it's only a three-year contract--so they can come back and say, 'Look, we tried.' "
J.B. Hopkins would never have the chance to throw his big January fete for the state's media. A month ago, without giving any explanation, United officials fired him. In the meantime, company officials have announced plans to cap the prison's population at 600 until they sort things out.
Despite the bad publicity the prison has brought to his town, Eloy City Manager Chris Zapata says he still stands behind United and the town's decision to invite them in.
"Since that prison opened, we have seen our unemployment rate drop from 20 percent to 12 percent," he says. "So far, it has been very good for the community."
Whether it's good in the long run, though, is another question.
"We don't know if this is par for the course or not," Zapata says. "Our biggest concern is whether something like this, if it keeps up, could affect our ability to bring in other employers."
Jim Griffith, Eloy's police chief, voices another concern.
"Almost everyone in town knows someone or has loved ones working in that prison," he says. "They just want to know if they're safe."
Meanwhile, all seems calm at the Eloy Detention Center. From the highway, you can see knots of dark-haired men in khaki uniforms taking in the sunshine and fresh air in the prison's recreation yard before returning to their cell blocks.
It is a pleasant, windless afternoon. A basketball game is underway and several prisoners run laps around the jogging track inside the prison's tall chain-link fence.
A mile down the road, Linda Miller just hopes she won't have endure any more nights like the ones three months ago.
"My dream is for that prison to be here without anyone ever realizing it," she says. "I don't want people to be afraid to walk around at night. When you're at home at night, alone, you think about it." u
Howard Stansfield is a staff writer for The Casa Grande Dispatch.
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