Arizona is no stranger to prison privatization, but the stakes are higher now that lawmakers have proposed turning over maximum security facilities, including the state’s death row, to private prison companies.
One of the budget bills passed by the Legislature on June 4, S1028, calls for the Department of Administration to issue a request for information on the feasibility of privatizing state prisons, including maximum security facilities. An earlier version of the budget package included the privatization of the Eyman, Perryville and Yuma prison complexes. Eyman’s Browning Unit houses Arizona’s death row.
Private prisons in Arizona have housed DUI offenders and other low- and medium-security inmates since the early 1990s. But to Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan, privatizing maximum security and “close-custody” inmates – the second-highest security level in the corrections system – is a step too far.
“The private sector will probably tell you – certainly one of the legislators has told me – that they think it’s less expensive to have the private sector operate these systems, these prisons,” Ryan said. “Maximum security units are very staff intensive – control rooms, cell blocks, sally ports, gates, hands-on direct-contact supervision with inmates. … There are no staff efficiencies when you go into these facilities.”
Michael Duran, president of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, said private sector guards often lack the experience and training of their DOC counterparts, a critical factor when dealing with the types of people housed in maximum security facilities such as Browning or Eyman’s Special Management Unit. Ryan said maximum security prisoners commit 43 percent of all assaults against DOC personnel in Arizona, and close-custody prisoners account for another 34 percent.
“Sixteen percent of our prison system beds is where 77 percent of the assaults against our staff occur,” Ryan said.
But Steve Owen of Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America, which contracts with the state to house Arizona inmates in out-of-state prisons, said the private sector can handle maximum security prisoners as well as DOC, if not better. For example, he said, CCA runs a number of maximum security facilities, including the U.S. federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., and the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility, which houses inmates of all security levels up to death row.
“Our correctional staff and our correctional officers … contractually are required to meet or exceed the standards of our customers,” Owen said. “We receive the same level of training as our public counterparts. Also, it’s not uncommon to have people who come from a public-sector career in corrections, and come to work in the private sector.”
Prison personnel at CCA and other private companies are trained at or above the standards set by the American Correctional Association, Owen said. Additionally, states can require whatever training levels, staffing levels and staffing patterns they deem appropriate, he said.
Duran of the peace officers association said there are numerous areas where private sector companies can cut corners. Things such as education programs for inmates are often casualties to cost cutting, he said. Pay for prison guards is often lower as well, Duran said.
“They consider the inmates getting up in the morning and going to chow as part of programming,” Duran said. “That’s not programming.”
Charles Seigel of Cornell Companies, a Houston-based private corrections company, said his company operates several facilities that mix inmates of different security levels. Owen said it is more efficient for companies or departments of corrections to use “one-roof construction,” as opposed to multiple buildings that are more staff-intensive. One-roof complexes can be designed in a way that maximizes the efficiency of the staff, as well as reduces infrastructure costs in areas such as electricity, water and food service.
Ryan, however, prefers the way Arizona’s prison complexes are set up, with separate units for offenders of different security levels that are tied together by centralized support systems such as administration, motor pools, wastewater treatment systems and other infrastructure. Ryan has no objection to the privatization of lower-level security facilities, but he said it would be unwise to turn over lower-level security units to the private sector while having DOC continue to run other units in the same prison complex.
“It is not good public policy to think in terms of contracting maximum security inmates and, for that matter, close-custody inmates to the private sector,” Ryan said. “It’s also not a good public policy when you look at the model of how we operate and how we have clustered our prison units together in complexes that reflect … what the efficiencies are of shared services.”
Another concern Duran has with the privatization proposals being floated by the Legislature is the pension and retirement systems used by about 9,000 DOC personnel. If the state lays off prison guards so private sector companies can hire their own personnel – Eyman, Perryville and Yuma have a combined 2,000 employees, he said – it could create a serious drain on the Correction Officer Retirement Program, or CORP, when all the laid-off DOC employees pull out of the retirement plan at once.
“You want to displace 2,000 officers for what? They’re going to making half the pay that they were, and then … CORP’s going to pay out,” Duran said.
Privatization was proposed as a way to bridge Arizona’s budget deficit, estimated at $3 billion by the Legislature and $4 billion by the Governor’s Office. Lawmakers who included prison privatization in the budget package they approved June 4 noted the state could generate about $100 million for each prison complex it privatizes.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who has expressed skepticism about the plan, believes the state would be better off with a sale-leaseback agreement for state facilities, including some prisons, under which DOC still would run the prison complexes.
Ryan said the Legislature’s plan would be a raw deal for the state, giving Arizona $100 million for facilities that cost more than $1 billion to build. But he believes Arizona can generate revenue through privatization without shortchanging the state or handing over maximum security facilities to the private sector. He proposes taking vacant land at the Perryville and Yuma complexes – Perryville alone has 600 acres available – and awarding concession agreements to private companies for low- and medium-security facilities on the land.
Facilities on that now-vacant land could accommodate 5,000 new beds for low- and medium-security inmates, Ryan said, and the new facilities could tie into the infrastructure already in place at Perryville and Yuma. Such a plan would allow the state to meet the needs of its growing corrections system – it adds more than 1,800 inmates a year – and house more than 4,600 Arizona inmates who now are incarcerated at prisons in Colorado and Oklahoma.
Ryan said his plan could bring in about $300 million for the state, while giving DOC an opportunity to observe the effectiveness of private prisons that operate alongside state-run counterparts.
Regardless of what, if any, proposals move forward during this year’s legislative session, the prison privatization battle is likely to continue long after the budget crisis is over. In early July, the GEO Group formed a political action committee. GEO Group Political Action Committee Chairman Louis Carillo said the PAC was not formed to influence the proposals currently included in the Legislature’s budget, but will “contribute to various political campaigns that are of interest to the PAC.”