The Arizona Department of Corrections told the governor recently more private prison beds are needed because there's an increase in the state's prison population, but local prison reform advocates question the ADC's math and are wondering if this is just another attempt to push the state further into the arms of the private prison industry.
According to the letter, dated Sept. 3, 2013 from ADC director Charles Ryan, "After three years with a flat or declining inmate population, ADC experienced unanticipated growth of 809 inmates in (fiscal year) 2013. Population projections assume inmate growth will continue at nearly the same rate, 800 inmates per year, from FY 2014 through FY 2017."
The letter accompanied ADC's FY 2015 operating budget request for 455 FTE's and more than $62 million. In the budget request, Ryan says in the letter, is additional funding for 1,500 beds already authorized.
"These beds include 1,000 medium custody private prison beds authorized in May 2012. These beds include 1,000 medium custody private prison beds in Eloy and 500 maximum custody state beds to be constructed at ASPC-Lewis," the letter states.
Despite the fact that these beds are still coming online and aren't even filled yet, the budget request seeks approval for another 1,500 private prison beds.
Now, Ryan says in the letter that ADC has a problem - not enough for the first 500 beds and no money has been appropriated for the second 500 beds. But hey, now that the population has grown by 809 inmates during the fiscal year with 628 of those inmates being house in medium custody beds—now is the time for the governor and the legislature to come through.
The American Friends Service Committee's Tucson office is challenging ADC's population figures. It's a place the AFSC's Tucson program director Caroline Isaacs has been before. In 2011, ADC asked for 5,000 beds and when the AFSC pointed out the decline and flat line of the state's prison population, part of the request was shutdown.
Using the 800 inmate increase is a tactic to justify continued expansion, she challenges, when the population growth is based as much on releasing fewer prisoners as it is on new admissions.
The Weekly first reported on the prison population decline last year (See "No Disclosure," Feb. 23, 2012), when the AFSC issued a report on the increasing costs to Arizona taxpayers as the state dedicated more prison beds to private corporations when the prison population is decreasing, as well as security issues the state wasn't addressing at private prisons in Arizona.
Back then Isaacs said Arizona was experiencing its "lowest (prison-population) growth rates on record," citing the ADC's own projections that the state will have zero growth in 2012 and 2013. Isaacs also added that 13 percent of the state prison population is housed in private facilities, which is the 11th-highest percentage in the country.
In the organization's latest report on its blog, Cell-Out Arizona, Arizona's prison population peaked in 2009 with 40,766 inmates. In 2011, the population was 40,154 and in 2012, AFSC says the population flat lined into 2013. According to figures provided to the AFSC, prison admissions in 2012 were at 18,070 and releases at 18,374 with typical length of stay at 22.8 months. In 2013, admissions were at 18,677 and there were 17,868 releases with length of stay at 23.53 months.
In comparing the past two years there's an increase of 607, but also a reduction of 506 and an increase in stay by .73 months. To Isaacs, it's not that more folks are going to prison, it's that fewer people are being released. And maybe fewer people are being released so the ADC can keep its current budget allocation.
Basing the need for more private prison beds because of the 800 prison increase in one year is also wrong, Isaacs says, because future projects shouldn't be based on one year when previous years the growth was flat.
"They are deliberately manipulating the information," Isaacs says.
She asked ADC what they were basing the population projects on and she was sent a document on prison population statistics and then numbers from Maricopa County Jail, which is used because that jail sends more people to prison than any other jail in the state.
Yet, Isaacs says, Maricopa County has been doing a lot of work on diversions with new programs that release "more people from detention before trial because there's new research that shows that more time in jail before trial means it is more likely for (that person) to recidivate and get a longer sentence. They even started an innovative program for people who can get released even if they can't afford bail."
In the recent Cell-Out report, the AFSC also looked at figures from ADC on prisoners who've earned release credits that comes from Arizona's "truth in sentencing" law. Eligible prisoners who earn these release credits can be released after serving 85 percent of their sentence. How these credits are earned, withheld, etc., is completely up to the ADC. It can be especially difficult for prisoners with mental illness or developmental disabilities to receive these credits and easier for them to get tickets that go against early release. On other occasions, according to the report, the tickets can lead to a prisoner being labeled high risk and preventing them from earning credit, as well as being eligible for education, work or treatment programs.
According to figures put together by the AFSC, in the first year of the program in 2004, 296 inmates were released. In 2008, a year after it was expanded to second-time drug offenders, 879 were released—providing the state more than $1 million in savings. The program was then expanded to include all non-violent offenders. This led to a small increase, which eventually leveled off.
In 2010, with 1,055 early releases, saving $1,341,062; in 2011, with 1,122 released saving $1,126,250 and then last year the same number released saving $1,038,224. ADC, the AFSC says, reported in December 2012, that it held 9,642 eligible nonviolent offenders, but only 12 percent were referred.
"The story changes," Isaacs says, questioning if taxpayers really want the state to commit another 20 years to a contract with a private prison company.
The Weekly asked ADC spokesman Bill Lamoreaux for comment on the AFSC report and the figures it challenges. He responded that the ADC stands by its data, available on the ADC website, referring to inmate daily count sheets that show how many inmates are in all units for a given day, as well as intake and release figures for 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The Weekly filed a public information request for additional figures and information, and will do a follow-up.