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Report: Beware the Prison-Industrial Complex

February 16, 2012

PHOENIX - Arizona's private prisons are unneeded, unsafe and waste millions of taxpayer dollars, according to a new report from the Arizona branch of the American Friends Service Committee.

The report cites a new 2,000-bed private prison contained in Gov. Jan Brewer's budget as an example of the waste. King Downing, AFSC national healing justice goal analyst, says political pressure from huge private-prison corporations is creating a "prison-industrial complex" in states such as Arizona.

"In the military-industrial complex, over 50 percent of the budget is spent on military and not other items that we need in the government. In the prison-industrial complex, states are spending over half of their money on incarceration with a lot of it going toward these major corporations."

Typical state contracts with private prison operators require that inmate occupancy rates be kept above 97 percent. Carolyn Isaacs, AFSC's Arizona program director, says the cost of such policies was revealed following a 2010 breakout at a private prison in northwest Arizona, after which some inmates were temporarily removed.

"For example, after the Kingman escapes, DOC was trying to get those problems fixed. They weren't fixing the cameras and the security issues there. Essentially we paid $3 million for empty beds."

Wealthy private-prison corporations have been buying their way into the criminal justice system, Downing says, boosting demand for their services by lobbying for ever-tougher criminal laws.

"Money was being spent to pass zero-tolerance laws, three-strikes, truth-in-sentencing, mandatory minimums, because the private prison corporations were funding the studies that were used by legislators to say that getting tough on crime actually worked."
Recent reports from the state auditor general and the Arizona Department of Corrections indicate that it costs the same or more to house inmates in private facilities compared with state-run prisons. The AFSC study also found that private prisons are a greater threat to public safety and, in Arizona's case, are not needed because of steady or falling inmate populations.

The Huffington Post reported this week that one major operator of private prisons, Corrections Corporation of America, recently wrote to the governors of 48 states offering to buy their state-owned prisons outright. The offer would require a guarantee that the prisons be kept 90 percent full.

The AFSC report is online at afsc.org.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ