An inmate rests his hand on a fence at an Arizona jail. REUTERS/Joshua Lott
In mid-February, the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) released a report on the impact of private prisons in the state. Private Prisons: the Public’s Problem concluded that Arizona overpaid for private prison services between 2008 and 2010 to the tune of $10 million, and that the services it received were shoddy at best: malfunctioning alarm systems, fences with holes in them, staff who didn’t follow basic procedures and many other failings. All told, the state’s auditor general documented 157 serious security failings across five facilities that hold in-state prisoners. (There are three additional private prisons.) At least twenty-eight riots were also reported. (The report’s authors hesitated to give exact numbers on the latter, concluding that private prison administrators tried to hide evidence of riots from the public.)
Since 1987, Arizona’s Department of Corrections has been legislatively mandated to produce cost and quality reviews for its private prisons, in part to judge how they compare with state-run facilities. The data on costs were collected, but in recent years, it took a lawsuit by the AFSC for the Department of Corrections to release quality comparison data. Finally, in December it complied. The results were damning.
“The main purpose of a prison is to reduce crime,” said the AFSC’s report. “The only measurement available of how well a prison performs this function is its recidivism rates.” Yet, “none of the corporations operating in Arizona measure recidivism.” The report noted that at the private facilities there were higher staff turnover and lower staff qualifications, as well as more cases of violence than in state prisons.
One might think that, faced with evidence that the state isn’t getting enough bang for its buck, Arizona legislators would rethink their commitment to putting ever more prisoners into private facilities. Instead, in a move Orwellian even by the gutter standards of Arizona politics, they’ve simply tried to bar the state from collecting the evidence. On February 27 the legislature proposed a budget bill eliminating the requirement for a cost and quality review of private prison contracts. According to the AFSC, “The move would ensure that the public would have no way of knowing whether the state’s private prisons are saving money, rehabilitating prisoners, or ensuring public safety.”
Why have Arizona’s politicians taken this route? Part of the explanation may be that many of them have received large campaign contributions from private prison companies like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America. Although Democrats and Republicans have benefited, most of these influential dollars have gone to Republicans. These corporations have played a direct role in designing legislation that is good for business (like SB 1070, the state’s notorious immigration bill, passed in 2010).
But it is also because around the country, conservatives are trapped in their own rhetoric. Anti-government fanaticism is basically a litmus test for the GOP base these days. If you support policies that result in extraordinarily high levels of imprisonment, as Republicans traditionally have—from “three strikes” to today’s immigration crackdown—but you refuse, with few exceptions, to raise taxes to fund prisons, by default you end up embracing a logic of privatization. Government responsibilities are farmed out to companies whose interests lie not in social obligation but in a desire to make a fast buck.