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No New Private Prison in Yuma!

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The Arizona Department of Corrections has issued a Request for Proposal to private prison corporations to build 5,000 new for-profit private prison beds in Arizona. Two private, for-profit prison corporations are seeking contracts to build a prison in San Luis. GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) wants a 2,000-3,000 bed prison and Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the company responsible for the escapes from the Kingman prison last summer, wants a 3,000-bed prison.

Private prisons are bad for public safety, bad for the economy, and bad for the communities in which they are based.

Private prisons are unsafe. If the Kingman escapes did not prove this point sufficiently, there is a host of federal research data and published media accounts to verify it. US Department of Justice, which found that “Privately operated facilities have a significantly lower staffing level than publicly operated prisons and lack MIS support.” They also report a significantly higher rate of assaults on staff and inmates.

While private prisons enrich shareholders and top prison corporation executives, they do not save taxpayers money or result in economic development. Private prisons are not saving money in Arizona. The Arizona Department of Corrections has done a cost comparison analysis every year since 2005, and the results are consistent. The most recent of these, from 2009, shows that the State paid private prisons $55.89 for each medium-custody inmate per day compared to a daily cost of $48.13 per medium-custody inmate in state facilities.

Despite the claims of private prison corporations, prisons do not encourage economic growth for small rural communities. A study by researchers at Washington State University showed that prisons actually hurt long-term economic growth in small rural communities. And a new report (not yet published) by the same researchers at the Washington argues that privatization places downward pressure on staffing, pay and benefits for all prisons in the state. As a consequence, prisons not only fail to help but appear to harm host communities.

Both GEO Group and MTC, the companies proposing the facilities in Yuma, have long and troubled histories. In Texas, GEO’s Reeves County Detention Center has twice erupted in riots after a series of prisoner deaths. Arizona prisoners held at the same facility went on hunger strike to be brought back to Arizona. A GEO youth prison in Mississippi was recently sued by youth claiming that “barbaric, unconstitutional conditions” permeated the “dangerously understaffed” facility where “corruption and violence is rampant.” A similar GEO youth facility in Texas shuttered after unsafe and unsanitary conditions were found. Last year, GEO agreed to pay a $2.9 million settlement in a lawsuit that claimed that at six facilities an illegal policy of strip-searching all pretrial detainees.

At MTC’s Kingman prison in Arizona, three prisoners escaped in 2010 when they snuck past locked doors, avoided surveillance cameras and sensors, and went unnoticed by guard towers and ground patrol while they cut a hole in some perimeter fencing. A 61 year old couple from Oklahoma who were found dead and badly burned in their camper in New Mexico are thought to have been murdered by two of the fugitives from MTC’s prison while on the run from police. A guard at MTC’s Willacy County Processing Center was recently indicted for sexual assaulting a female detainee. Local media reported detainee complaints that rotten food was allegedly served at that facility. As many as 150 inmates were involved in a disturbance at MTC’s Marana Community Correctional Treatment Facility. The fight lasted about an hour before a 20 member tactical unit helped to break it up. 12 inmates and an MTC employee were injured.

The solution to Yuma’s economic future and well as our state's prison system and our astronomical recidivism rate is not more incarceration, but less. Sentencing reforms have been proven to work in many other states. They save millions of taxpayer dollars and improve public safety by helping to address the issues that lead to illegal behavior--mental illness, substance abuse, and economic insecurity.

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