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Benefits of private prisons are not real, Ariz. researcher warns


September 12, 2012
LANCASTER — An Arizona researcher, Caroline Isaacs, presented highlights of her report on the actual cost and performance of privately run for-profit prisons on Thursday night to some 40 townspeople.

Isaacs is the program director in the Arizona office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Tucson, and it was in that capacity that her 105-page work — "Private Prisons, the Public's Problem: a Quality Assessment of Arizona's Private Prisons" — was published on Feb. 15 (http://afsc.org/resource/Arizona-prison-report).

Isaacs' review of the safety, quality, and cost of private prisons under contract with the state appear to confirm the truth of the cautionary saying: "If it's too good to be true, it probably is."

The State Employees Association (SEA) sponsored Isaacs' presentation, and Joe Meagher of SEAU Local 1984 (jmeagher@SEIU1984.org) was on hand. AFSC's N. H. program coordinator Arnie Alpert (afscnh@afsc.org) who believes that privatizing prisons is "a terrible idea" was also on hand.

Isaacs PowerPoint talk — "For Profit Incarceration: Arizona's Experience" — was brought to Lancaster because New Hampshire is considering the privatization of all or some if its prisons.

One of the four for-profit firms that responded to a Request for Proposals (RFPs) has an option to purchase land off Route 3 North behind Lancaster's undeveloped Industrial Park. Two spokesman of the publicly traded Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a full-service private corrections management provider, discussed the possibility of its building a private prison that would create 300 jobs and pay local real estate taxes on May 7 at a joint meeting of the selectmen and Planning Board at town hall. CCA operates private prisons in Arizona, a state with nearly 6 million residents. CCA apparently also met earlier with the Northumberland selectmen.

The data that Isaacs brought forward on Thursday evening indicated that private prisons under contract with the state of Arizona do not save money but, in fact, cost taxpayers more than equivalent units operated by the state Department of Corrections. A private prison in 2010 in Arizona cost $53.02 per day for each prisoner in a medium-security facility and only $48.42 in a state prison. Apparently, however, the capital costs — including interest — were not included or taken into account in these numbers. Much of the appeal of contracting with private prison corporations is that it allows states to avoid borrowing money to cover the large capital construction costs.

"Between 2008 to 2010, Arizona overspend on private prisons by an average of $3.5 million annually — over $10 million on private prisons in those years alone," Isaacs reported.

Safety in private prisons is also a concern. "There are 66 percent more prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in private prisons than in public prisons, and 49 percent higher instance of prisoner-on-corrections-staff assault in private prisons," she said, quoting in-state reports.

"While no prison can be entirely safe or problem-free, private prisons demonstrate clear, long-standing patterns of prisoner unrest including riots, staffing and managements issues, escapes and other serious safety problems," Isaacs said.

A three-inmate escape from a private prison in Kingman, Ariz., led to the murder of two campers. A later investigation revealed that security tower lights were burned out, its perimeter unwatched, and that corrections officers ignored alarms because so many false alarms had been sounded.

Isaacs also presented evidence that siting private prisons in a town does not lead to further economic development, but can, in fact, have the opposite effect.

Florence, Ariz., with a population of 25,536 in 2010 had a prison population of 17,700 — a whopping 69 percent of the total. Formerly a copper mine boom town, the county seat is now home to three state prisons, six private prisons, and one federal immigration detention center. According to the 2010 U.S. census, Florence has the highest proportion (36 percent) of vacant housing of any city or town in Pinal County and its two neighboring counties. Total employment per capita was 40 to 46 percent less than national and state averages, and average wages 10 percent lower than the state's average. A slide that Isaacs showed of downtown Florence resembled an abandoned set created for a western TV series.

Isaacs also argued that private prisons have far less accountability than state-run facilities despite that fact that they are doing the same job and are also paid for with taxpayer dollars.

She noted that the state is dependent on beds for overcrowded prisons, and that cities and towns are dependent on jobs and income as well as on alleged kickbacks.

Isaacs also raised ethical questions and concerns. The AFSC for which she works is a Quaker organization that includes people of various faiths who are committed to social justice, peace, and humanitarian service. Its work is based on the principles of the Religious Society of Friends, the belief in the worth of every person, and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.

Isaacs posed three ethical questions: "Is it right for a for-profit corporation to make money from incarceration? How does this affect the company's incentive to rehabilitate offenders? Is this an abdication of (stepping aside from) a fundamental state government responsibility?"

District I Executive Councilor Ray Burton, who was at the talk, explained that the Council had unanimously approved a $171,000 contract to allow a private consulting firm to undertake the detailed work involved in comparing the four extensive proposals submitted by for-profit prison developers which it will report its findings to the state Department of Administrative Services by Oct. 5. That Department will then use this report to make its own recommendation, likely to the newly elected governor and the Executive Council, Burton explained.

Public-private partnerships have been a long tradition in this state, Burton explained. The largest by far is the $2.3 billion Medicaid contract with three private companies that the Council recently passed on a 3 to 2 vote, he said, noting that he had voted "yes."

A lawsuit has already been filed by inmates at the state women's prison in Goffstown alleging unequal training facilities when compared to offerings at the state men's prisons, Burton said. It is certainly possible, he replied in answer to a question, that within the next five years a lawsuit could be successful in closing down the men's prison in Concord. Opened in 1878, the State Prison for Men is the state's oldest prison facility. Renovated and expanded in the 1980s, it includes a 60-bed secure psychiatric unit-residential treatment unit, and it is the only facility operated by the state Department of Corrections in which maximum-security male prisoners are housed.

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