Private Prisons

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Arizona’s prison population has leveled off, yet more contracts for private prisons will be awarded soon. Representative Cecil Ash says considering the tight economic times, more prisons are not needed now. He will talk about the issue along with Representative John Kavanagh, who supports more prisons.

Ted Simons: The State Department of Correction assists in the process of awarding new contracts for more private prisons in Arizona. It comes at a time when prison populations are leveling off and lawmakers look for places to cut the budget. Representative Cecil Ash says now may not be the time to add more prisons. Representative John Kavanagh thinks the beds are needed, and that's tonight's debate. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Cecil Ash: Nice to be here.

John Kavanagh: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Let's start with just the idea of Arizona expanding private prisons. Is it good for the state?

Cecil Ash: Well, as you mentioned the population in the Department of Corrections has been decreasing. I think at the end of 2009 they had 40,544, so the last report I got we're down to 40,200. So population is decreasing. I think there are many things that private industry can do well, but incarceration is a core government function, and I think it's a mistake to go in that direction.

Ted Simons: Ok, couple of ideas before get to both of them.
Cecil Ash: Sure.
Ted Simons: First of all, in general, is expanding now, private prisons, good for Arizona?

John Kavanagh: Yes. We need to. We have overcrowded prisons. We have a 1400-bed shortfall. We have prisoners that are being housed in areas that were not meant for prisoners. And this causes overcrowding, dissatisfaction, if you track from rehabilitation efforts, and the shortfall is projected to increase between now and 2015 to 5,000 beds. There is a slight dip now, but you've got a population dip with the recession. But as the economy recovers and people come back, we'll be on course for needing 5,000 beds in 2015. And the private option besides saving us in operating costs spares us the initial large capital construction costs.

Ted Simons: The idea that things are leveling off now, does end necessarily mean things will be leveled off in the future. How do you respond to that?

Cecil Ash: Well, as I've said before, the state of Washington has roughly the same population as Arizona, 6.5 million. They have 18,000 inmates. We have 40,000. Almost 2½ times the number of inmates. So I think there are other changes we can do. The APEC, the prosecuting attorney's council did a study, and even their own researchers said there are probably 5,000 people, 5,000 inmates who don't represent a threat to the public. We could start revising some of the ways we incarcerate people and employ other avenues like home arrest, and ankle bracelets, we can reduce that population if the legislature would move forward and allow for these changes to happen.

John Kavanagh: That goes down to what you consider the purpose of incarceration. Is it purely to isolate somebody so they can't victimize other people, or is there a certain retribution and punishment aspect to it? Or a deterrence aspect? And we need more than nine minutes to discuss those issues.

Ted Simons: Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, they've all cut their inmate counts; they've all cut their crime rates as well. Is that something Arizona should look at, sentencing reform?

John Kavanagh: We certainly can look at it, but we have very little hard scientific data that applies to Arizona. You have to have statisticians to find out what number of people that you currently have in can be safely released. And no one has done that yet. We say certain states have done it, so do it here, but you need more facts than that.

Cecil Ash: On the line though, I think before we want to entrust inmates to private prisons, let's have some studies that show that it's cost effective. The last study I saw finished in 2007 by the MAXIMUS group, it studied Arizona private prisons versus Department of Corrections, and what they found out is that there was no difference in cost. And yet the Department of Corrections is performing certain tasks. The private prisons cherry picked the prisoners, they take the minimum security, the Department of Corrections still has to do all the background checks, and they have to handle all the escapes and other problems that come up. And we need some studies to verify that private prisons are cost effective and that they're as safe as Arizona's Department of Corrections.

John Kavanagh: Studies that say that private prisons are the same cost as public prisons generally don't take into account certain services that a public prison gets that they don't put into the mix. Like legal services for the attorney general. Procurement from the department of administration, etc. In addition, a whole new factor is the unfunded tensions that all public employees, especially public safety employees have. Which may be in the area of literally half of what we have to give out in pensions.

Ted Simons: It seems all budget issues led to pensions these days. How do you respond to that?

Cecil Ash: Our first concern is public safety. Incarceration is a core function of government. And the purpose of a private prison is to make a profit. The purpose of the government is to rehabilitate people, reform people, there may be some retribution, but you don't want a private company engaged in retribution either. To place inmates in private prisons, it makes prisoners a commodity.

Ted Simons: The idea that -- I think there are four bidders right now as far as process has gone, each one of these bidders has had a problem or two down the pike, including - I mean one of the bidders that the state is looking to is the Kingman prison, we had this huge problem last year. We've had -- every single one has had escapes in the last few years, they've had some escapes leading to murders. Again, is this something -- is this right for Arizona?

John Kavanagh: First of all, there have been escapes in Arizona prisons, we had a major hostile situation in Perryville, not that long ago. So if the rationale is, if an escape or hostage situation occurs in a prison, you stop that type of imprisonment, we would have ended public prison as long time ago. You have to look at them individually. And there is nothing inherently better or worse other than the cost savings between private and public prisons.

Cecil Ash: Then let's have some study that demonstrates there is a cost savings. And that there is no difference in the safety. Because the reports I've seen suggest that private prisons are not as good as disciplining the people, controlling prisoner on officer attacks, and that sort of thing. Let's study this before we commit a huge amount of money.

John Kavanagh: I want to go back to this Kingman situation. A follow-up study showed that place was a mess and there were a lot of problems up there, inside and out. Why are we even looking at them for more business in Arizona?

John Kavanagh: The Department of Corrections people are the ones who included them in the mix. But the idea -- let me go to Kingman, because as chairman of appropriations I was privy to some meetings about what happened there. And it speaks to the whole public-private dichotomy. Most of the people running the Kingman prison were retired Arizona state correctional wardens and assistant wardens, are most -- our most experienced and our best state corrections officials were the people who were running the Kingman operation. We had on-site in Kingman, currently employed Department of Corrections inspectors who were supposed to be documenting and making sure that things ran right. Kingman was as much a failure of public corrections as private corrections.

Cecil Ash: You go back to the -- this is the problem I have. The primary goal of a private company is profit. And this is a place -- you can have public companies build great roads, but the users of those roads are the public. And in prisons, the users of the private prison are the inmates who have no voice. And so as long as they please everybody else, we don't know whether they're getting the job done to rehabilitate these people and give them opportunities to improve their lives.

John Kavanagh: First of all, health services, food service, electricity, all vital functions that almost exclusively are provided by the private sector. There's nothing that says the private sector can efficiently give you services that you need.

Ted Simons: I want to go back to something mentioned earlier, the idea that prison inmate population may be leveling off right now. But it will increase in the future, more than likely, and even now it would ease overcrowding. There certainly is an overcrowding problem in Arizona prisons, until sentencing reform, something like that happens, why not get more beds to ease the overcrowding?

Cecil Ash: All we can do is follow the line of decreasing prison population. Even since the first of the year, it's continuing to go down, and I believe if we make some reasonable reforms in our criminal justice system. We live in a world of new technology, we have ankle bracelets, GPS systems, we have monitors that can determine whether someone has had alcohol or drugs in their system. All they have to do is wear a bracelet. These changes, we need to move on them and our prison population will decrease.

Ted Simons: Allright. We need to stop it there. Gentlemen, good discussion.

Ted Simons: Tomorrow on "The Journalists' Round Table," the governor sets a date for the recall election of senate president Russell Pearce, and the round table includes a reporter who saw a lawmaker point a loaded gun at his chest and live to tell about it. "The Journalists' Round Table," Friday at 7:00 on "Horizon."

Ted Simons: That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Cecil Ash: Representative; John Kavanagh: Representative;

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