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Despite outcry from critics, Arizona politicians continue to privatize parts of the state prison system. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Private Prisons Gone Wild

Legal challenges are no match for Arizona politicians determined to privatize the state’s correctional services.

BY Beau Hodai

The Arizona Bureau of Planning, Budget and Research notes a whopping savings of three cents per head among the relatively low-maintenance minimum security crowd held in private pens: $46.56 per diem for a private bed, versus $46.59 at state-run institutions.

The recent dismissal of a lawsuit filed against both Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) Director Charles Ryan and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) is the latest step in the state’s hell-bent plan to roughly double its number of privately managed prison “beds.”

The suit, filed in an Arizona Superior Court by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) on September 12, sought an injunction against ADC and the governor’s pending award of 5,000 new prison beds to be operated by a for-profit vendor. The state currently contracts out more than 6,500 minimum- and medium-security beds at seven facilities with Geo Group, the nation’s second largest private prison operator, and Management and Training Corporation (MTC).

AFSC argued that ADC is negligent in its statutorily required duty to conduct biennial cost and quality assessments of the state’s private prisons. The purpose of these assessments is to determine whether the state is receiving the same quality of service from private prison operators as provided by public facilities.

Nevertheless, ADC has not completed a single survey.

While the law defines a clear list of specific items to be assessed (such as security standards and personnel training), and a set time frame for assessments to be performed (every two years), it does not say that these assessments are the sole bar that must be used to measure standards of private penitentiaries.

Without the existence of these biennial reports, it’s anyone’s guess what cost comparison model is used by ADC, the legislature and the governor’s office.

When asked what criteria the department uses to determine if the private correctional beds managed in Arizona are operating with the same level of security and care as state-run facilities, and whether those facilities are providing any savings to the public, ADC spokesman Barrett Marson directed In These Times to the ADC’s “Fiscal Year 2010 Operating Per Capita Cost Report.”

The most recent FY 2010 per capita report available–published by the Arizona Bureau of Planning, Budget and Research on April 13, 2011–offers nothing to suggest the state should continue its rush toward the privatization of correctional services. The report states that the total adjusted per diem (per prisoner, per day) cost for state-run medium security facilities was $48.42. The per diem for medium security prisoners held by private contractors amounted to $53.02.

The bureau did note a whopping savings of three cents per head among the relatively low-maintenance minimum security crowd held in private pens–at $46.56 per diem for a private bed, versus $46.59 at state-run institutions. But the report goes on to quickly deflate the standing of that $0.03 margin, stating: “[There are several] inmate management functions that are provided and paid for by the state but are not provided by the private contractors. This inequity increases the state per capita cost which, in comparison, artificially lowers the private bed cost.”

Nevertheless, AFSC’s suit was dismissed on October 27 by Arizona Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson. The basis for the dismissal, however, was not based on the merits of the suit, but rather in Anderson’s concurrence with Assistant Attorney General Rex Nowlan. Nowlan had argued that AFSC and other plaintiffs did not have standing to seek relief for a violation of the law requiring assessment.

AFSC is appealing the dismissal. “We will vigorously fight the state’s effort to dismiss the case on procedural standing grounds,” said Vince Rabago, a former state prosecutor who is representing AFSC in the case. “Given the obvious public safety issues and impact on taxpayers, the parties should have a hearing on the merits of the state violating its own laws for more than two decades.”

Beau Hodai, a former In These Times Staff Writer, is the founder of DBA Press (dbapress.com), an online news publication and source materials archive.

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