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Privatization proposal for maximum security prisons raises concerns

Perryville State Prison Complex in Glendale is on the auction block. (Photo by Bill Coates)

Perryville State Prison Complex in Glendale is on the auction block. (Photo by Bill Coates)

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.”

6 comments

  1. INCARCERATING PEOPLE “FOR PROFIT” IS IN A WORD….WRONG!

    Even if one does not ask or pretends not to see the rope and the flashing red flag draped around the philosophical question standing solemnly at attention in the middle of the room, it remains apparent that the mere presence of a private “for profit” driven prison business in our country undermines the U.S Constitution and subsequently the credibility of the American criminal justice system. In fact, until all private prisons in America have been abolished and outlawed, “the promise” of fairness and justice at every level of this country’s judicial system will remain unattainable. We must restore the principles and the vacant promise of our judicial system. Our government cannot continue to “job-out” its obligation and neglect its duty to the individuals confined in the correctional and rehabilitation facilities throughout this nation, nor can it ignore the will of the people that it was designed to serve and protect. There is urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of indifference, apathy, cynicism, fear, and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.

    My hope is that you will support the National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) with a show of solidarity by signing “The Single Voice Petition”
    http://www.petitiononline.com/gufree2/petition.html

    Please visit our website for further information: http://www.npsctapp.blogspot.com

    –Ahma Daeus
    “Practicing Humanity Without A License”…

  2. Arizona legislature did pass Bill 1028 for privite prisons. Our time to say “no” is now! Contact your legislature and express your concern for this decision. Support Jan Brewer in her decision to veto the bill in the best interest of public safety. The government should be responsible for the public safety and not some private corporation.

    If you are employeed with DOC, now is a good time to join and support the union’s efforts, fighting the private prison concept here in Arizona.

    When private companies have no problem stating “we will contribute to various political campaigns that are of interest to the political action committee”, which they established (PAC) to further their buisness and profit, there’s a problem. Those in office are making decisions that are not in the best interest of the state, public, or employees, but in the best interest of their campaign funds. The public needs to know and be aware of these actions.

  3. I work for one of these prisons and i want to know if the employee is given notice to any of these lay off or are we just thrown to the curve to fend for our selves , hoping that we dont turn to a life of crime in order to feed our children. as it is i can barely keep up with the house bills now, these people in charge give the doc employees no fighting chance . why dont you ask us how we feel about getting layed off in order to privatize prisons and save the state some money…. they want to save money then why dont they go to ten hour shifts and cut out any possible over time … ten hour shifts would over lap each shift by one hour in the beginning and in the end of each shift putting more officers on the yard and allowing any one on transports to get relieved minimizing ot not to menchin giving us one more day off to spend with our families reducing call ins and possible suicides from work related stress………. witch are never mentioned ……….

  4. There is alot of fear amongst DOC employees that the privitization of the prison will cause us to loose our retirement plans. This is THE REASON that the majority of us stay. Is there any other reason that we would put up with the level of risk, NO! I think that the reduction of benefits and retirement plans wil cause a mass migration of trained and skilled workers out of these positions.

  5. I work for the corrections department in Arizona. This is the way I support my family and like me other officer’s. Privatizing at the cost of our jobs, beneficts retirement . Putting hundre’s of officer on the street, we are not talking about one officer, we are talking hundre’s it will destroy families. Privitization of the prison will finish with our retiremen and even our jobs and good beneficts. This are the REASON that we work for the state. I will said a place were we are treated, fair with respect. A place were we get alone like big great family, PRIVITIZATION. By you taking all this you will put us on the UNEMPLOYMENT LINES. I think theres plenty of people in those lines already. By doing this crazy idea. YOU WILL DESTROY ENTIRE FAMILIES. Mr. legislator’s you are there because of us we voted we support , we put you up there. What happen MR. Legislator you think you walk up there and grab a SEAT. RAISE THE TAXES.

  6. The restructuring of the Arizona Department of Corrections and turning it over to Private companies is probably the best idea anyone involved in The Goverment of Arizona has ever had. I currently work for the Arizona department of Corrections and previously for the Florida department of Corrections. I know first hand the shortcuts that State run prisons are allowed and even forced to take. These private companies are not able to take these shortcuts. They are held financially responsible where as the state is able to cover these things up and keep shortchanging the system. The Private companies do not have unions to protect them when they violate policies and procedures like the state systems have. They do not have the state to take care of any lawsuits that the prisoners may file. They have to be perfect. They are forced to follow the rules as set forth by the state or entity that funds their contracts or they do not get paid. They do all of this at a substantially lower rate than the states are able to compete with because of the efficiency that they have had to build into their facilities and the ingenuity of the procedures that they have been forced to perfect in order to be able to do a much better job than the state can for a much lower price. In conclusion, I will say that while I currently work for the State DOC Iwill be more than happy to accept a job from a private company who is willing to give me the training and resources to succeed in a ever-changing economy.

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