Move That Ball and Chain

Arizona to ship 645 prisoners to private prison in Newton, Texas.

Racked by monumental deficits and severe overcrowding, Arizona began shipping the first of 645 prisoners last week to a low-bid private prison in Newton, Texas, not far from the Louisiana border.

Ninety-six inmates were bused to Newton, about 150 miles northeast of Houston, in the first wave of a new Arizona plan to export prisoners to contain costs in the chronically understaffed and overcrowded Department of Corrections.

Overbooked by 3,500 inmates, and taking in an average of 118 new convicts a month at Arizona prisons, state officials shopped earlier this year for the best deal to move 100 minimum-security prisoners and 545 medium- and high-medium security prisoners.

Those staying home, or at least in Arizona cells, are maximum-security prisoners, sex offenders, DUI offenders and those with medical or mental-health problems. Others segregated for protection and those with nearing release dates also are ineligible for the move to Newton.

That facility is operated by Correctional Services Corp., a Sarasota, Fla.-based company, that satisfied Arizona with a low bid of $38.50 per day--more than $20 less than what prison officials say it costs taxpayers to house convicts in Arizona prisons.

When completed, prison officials--with the blessing of a Legislature desperate to balance budgets--hope the Texas prison deal will save about $4.6 million a year. They say it would cost $13.7 million to house the 645 convicts in Arizona.

There's more to it than money, says Donna Leone Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, Inc.

"We are philosophically opposed to it," Hamm said. "It's almost like they are out of sight, out of mind. It presents a host of problems."

Those include possible lack of medical care, uncertain grievance procedures and lack of access to Arizona lawyers, Arizona courts and Arizona law books, she said.

The moves also restrict prisoners' contact with family and friends. But on that point, Hamm, a tough but reasonable critic of the Department of Corrections, gives some praise to state prison officials.

"To DOC's credit, they are trying to move who didn't have visitation," Hamm said. "Unofficially, they are adding people (for exemption) who have family visits."

Charles Ryan, acting director of the Department of Corrections, said families are not ignored.

"We recognize the strain this may cause inmate families and we are attempting to take this into consideration as we identify who will be transferred," Ryan said. "Unfortunately, the fact is that severe prison overcrowding and limited state resources have left us without any other viable options."

Hamm said those problems are the result of DOC policies and administration.

"We are trying to be fair and open-minded. We understand the state budget crisis. But the Department of Corrections is arbitrarily forfeiting prisoners' earned-release credits," thereby increasing the length of prison stays and exacerbating overcrowding.

It gets back to long-simmering issues for prisoners and advocates like Hamm. Disciplinary action in Arizona prisons is unfair, they say. Hamm labels prison hearings, with no tape recorders and no counsel for inmates, "kangaroo courts."

Jim Robideau, a Department of Corrections spokesman, said he was unaware of any statistics that show the number of prisoners who could have been released had they not lost credit for good time. Arizona prisons, Robideau said, do not reward prisoners for disciplinary or other infractions.

"If a prisoner deserves discipline, he'll get it. It becomes a safety issue for inmates and staff," Robideau said.

The state has attempted to reduce the prison swelling with the release of 350 inmates two months ago. That number is expected to top 1,000 by March, Robideau said.

Arizona prison officials will monitor the Newton County Correctional Center, Robideau said, to ensure Arizona inmates are properly treated and have necessary access to medical care.

The Texas transfers mark the first time Arizona has shipped prisoners out of state although private prisons near in Marana, near Florence and near Phoenix house more than 1,500 Arizona inmates.

The nation's biggest operator of private prisons, Corrections Corporation of America, houses inmates from Hawaii and Alaska--at the daily rate of $42 a head--at Florence amid such controversy than state lawmakers have pushed for a crackdown of private prisons.

The irony of Arizona now shipping a batch of its own 30,000 prisoners to a private facility in Texas while Hawaiian and Alaskans are incarcerated at another company's prison in Arizona is not lost on Hamm.

"Our experience with private prisons is that they shuffle off problems to the (contracting) state," Hamm said.

Corrections Services Corp. has 13 facilities for adults and 33 for juveniles with a total of 8,900 beds in 18 states.

Founded in 1993, Corrections Services Corp. listed on the NASDAQ as CCSQ, reported a sharp drop in net income for the quarter that ended Sept. 30. Income was down $154,000, or 24 percent, compared to the previous quarter. Total revenue was down more than $1 million to $39.1 million.

The company, which recently shed a prison in Puerto Rico to raise money to pay off a GE Capital loan, is trading up recently at $2.89 a share.

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