The recent prison escape in Florence has once again highlighted the complete disaster that is Arizona’s prison industry. Yet it was reported in early January that the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry had floated the idea of contacting up to 2,706 more for-profit prison beds though the inmate population has decreased by nearly 5,000 since 2016. This would be an extremely bad idea in terms of fiscal policy, legal practice, and the direction of the state.
President Biden just issued an executive order reducing the use of for-profit prisons by the federal government. An article in the Arizona State Law Journal by distinguished senior lecturer Michele Deitch shows that the national prison population has shrunk 9% since 2009, with seven states seeing a decline of more than 30% during that time period. But in Arizona, the prison population has grown by 60% since 2000, and this rapid growth has put increasing pressure on every aspect of the corrections industry. A recent report indicated that Arizona’s prison population growth can be attributed to the state’s decision to increasingly imprison people convicted of non-violent offenses as well as to incarcerate people for periods significantly longer than the national average. The budget for corrections has ballooned to $1.1 billion annually, and prison spending exceeds state spending on higher education, child safety, and family social services. Arizona has the nation’s eighth largest state prison system and the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country.
The history of private sector involvement in corrections is a bleak, well-documented tale of inmate abuse and political corruption. Prison labor has its roots in slavery. In Worse than Slavery, David M. Oshinsky outlined the system of Jim Crow justice established after the Civil War. In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon chronicles the re-enslavement of Blacks from the Civil War to World War II. The roots in slavery continue. Nearly three times more Black people are incarcerated in the U.S. today than were in South Africa during the height of apartheid.
According to the Justice Policy Institute, private prison companies have had either influence over or helped to draft model legislation such as “three-strikes” and “truth-in-sentencing” laws, both of which have driven up incarceration rates and ultimately created more opportunities for for-profit prison companies to increase revenues. Arizona is the only state in the country with truth-in-sentencing for first time drug offenders.
The prison industry decreases jobs overall, the wage rate, and economic development. For-profit prisons are less safe and more costly. The department had done a cost comparison analysis every year and showed that the state paid for-profit prisons more than state institutions. To prevent the public from knowing how their tax money is wasted, the Legislature repealed the statute that required the comparison between state and for-profit institutions. Allegedly privatization should save money, but in Arizona it costs us more.
A program already exists to transition prisoners out 90 days prior to their release date. In every year since 2010, only about 1,000 prisoners have been included, although 10,000 to 15,000 are eligible. Every year, well over a million dollars has been saved and crime decreased. The obstinate refusal of the department to use this program to its full extent has forced the Legislature to introduce bills SB1067 and HB2163 to mandate it.
Simply reducing our truth-in-sentencing laws by10% to 20% could release 9,500 inmates saving over $200 million every year. Of those in the transition program, 71% remain employed after prison, thus increasing state taxes and reducing family dependence. Recidivism is reduced, thus increasing public safety as well. Yet year after year these bills are introduced and also not heard. One must ask who is making money by keeping people in prison? For-profit prisons are an invitation to fiscal irresponsibility, prisoner abuse, and decreased public safety.
Ultimately, corporations locking up people for profit is inhumane, immoral, and a violation of fundamental human rights. To supply bodies, the state must continue to arrest people and incarcerate them, reject probation, refuse parole, use the disciplinary system to maintain the population, deny treatment for drug abusers and the mentally ill, transfer juveniles to adult court, lock up the undocumented who have committed no crimes, and punish women for defending themselves. It’s economic insanity, administration stupidity and profoundly immoral to create such misery in the lives of millions of families just to make a buck. Corporations do not move to a state because they have good prisons, but because they have good schools and an educated work force. Spend that money on the citizens of the state of Arizona, the children and the future. Don’t spend that money to line the pockets of a few corporations.
Dianne Post is an attorney and facilitator for Arizona Justice Alliance.