Private Prisons

More from this show

The issue of whether Arizona should build more private prisons has come under scrutiny because of recent riots at a privately-run state prison in Kingman. Private prison proponent Senator John Kavanagh will discuss the issue with Senator Martin Quezada, who is against more private prisons.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," we'll have a debate on private prisons in Arizona. Also tonight, Arizona Opera has a new initiative to expand its repertoire. And we'll hear about a program that helps kids develop apps for younger kids. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon".

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The Maricopa County board of supervisors today unanimously voted to settle a justice department lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The suit alleges that the sheriff's department unfairly targeted Latinos in traffic stops and workplace raids. The suit also says that the sheriff's office retaliated against critics and did not provide adequate services to inmates with limited English skills. The settlement does not involve cash, but instead requires policy changes, justice department oversight, and additional training. The case was set to go to court next month.

TED SIMONS: The debate over private prisons is heating up again, this after a recent outbreak of violence and unrest at a for-profit prison in Kingman. The incident prompted the state Department of Corrections to postpone a deadline for bids to build more private prisons. Here to talk about the issue is state republican senator John Kavanagh, a proponent of private prisons, and state Democratic senator, Martin Quezada, who is opposed to for-profit prisons in Arizona. Good to have you both here, thanks for joining us. John we'll start with you, private prisons why are they good for Arizona?

JOHN KAVANAGH: First they cost less than publicly run prisons. If you look at the per inmate cost. On top of that, they provide an adequate level of service. The Kingman incident aside. The other operating prisons have had no problems. Whereas many state prisons have had problems. Third, in these difficult times, the state does not have the money to build new prisons, when a private prison operator comes in, they build the prison for us, that's included in the per diem cost, less than it cost us in a state run prison, and after 20 years, they give the prison back to us and the per Diem gets even lower. So it's money, adequate care, and they build the prisons and we haven't got the cash.

TED SIMONS: Why are private prisons bad for Arizona?

MARTIN QUEZADA: First Ted, I think it's really clear that we need to understand what our motivations are for being here in the first place. Number one, I think my primary motivation as an elected official is to ensure that we have public safety in our communities and number two is to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar. On the other hand, my colleague here, Senator Kavanagh, has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for the private prison industry and he has offered amendments to give them hundreds of thousands of dollars in a budget process where he cut funds to education and as such has been their biggest voice at the capitol.

TED SIMONS: And yet he says it is a more cost effective way for the state to house inmates.

MARTIN QUEZADA: As their biggest voice down at the capitol, of course he's going to say that -- One of the biggest beneficiaries of their heavy campaign contributions. But let's ask that question, are they better? Are they more cost effective? We don't know. We don't know because we haven't been able to do an audit -- a comprehensive audit that would tell us exactly if those prisons are cost effective or not.

TED SIMONS: Comparisons -- there is a law that says we don't do comparisons.

JOHN KAVANAGH: I will explain it all. The last time that we actually had a study by the Department of Corrections was around 2010. And they were doing it once every year or every other year. I was in the legislature, and we were frustrated, every time they come out with their comparison report, they didn't include the cost of constructing the prisons and unfunded the pension liabilities that our public corrections officers have, which are monumental. Those are two big costs. They left them out. Doing that, their studies showed for the minimum security prison, the privates were a little bit cheaper, but there was a larger savings for the medium security prisons. We told the nonpartisan, joint-legislator's budget committee, the legislature's budget people, take those two factors, the cost of building the prisons and the unfunded pension liabilities for the public corrections officers, put them into the state's equation. They did. And what happened was, the numbers were quite startling. It basically showed that for the minimum security prisons, 46.95 for the private ones, versus $58 for the publics. And the Medium security, it was 53.20 for the privates and 60.39 for the publics, so on both areas, substantially cheaper, and that was a nonpartisan analysis.

MARTIN QUEZADA: The nonpartisan analysis factored into the construction of the prisons. Let's look at the entire aspect of prisons in general. Let's look at safety, let's look at staffing, let's look at the cost lawsuits that are incurred when these situations erupt where there are escapes. When we look at a comprehensive analysis of that cost comparison I think you're going to have a much different result. Unfortunately we can't see what that is because those audits were eliminated by senator Kavanagh.

JOHN KAVANAGH: First of all, staffing, we the state write the contract. They have to comply with the contract. We have 24/7 state monitors on site to make sure that the contract is being followed. Those reports I just mentioned did include staffing costs at the level that the state mandated. Concerning lawsuits, when there's an incident at a state-run facility, the state gets sued and we pay big bucks. When there is an incident at a private prison, they are totally responsible, the company for the lawsuit costs, zero exposure. One more reason why they're cheaper.

MARTIN QUEZADA: No, we -- absolutely -- at the end of the day the state is ultimately responsible because it is the state that is getting sued and the state that is also getting sued if you look at the last 2010 escape from the Kingman prison in particular, when those beds were no longer filled after the state said we don't trust you to house these certain inmates, move them to state run facilities, the state got sued for not fulfilling that quota, that minimum quota. Which are in every one of those contracts.

TED SIMONS: Let's talk about that minimum quota. 97% guarantee to these-- since when do we guarantee profits for businesses?

JOHN KAVANAGH: We guarantee staffing. What we basically say is, we want you, private company, to build the prison for us, that's a phenomenal expense up front. In return, this is the per diem that we want. Would you expect any company, prison or not, to make a massive capital investment not knowing that there would be prisoners there? The guarantee is so simply that after they spend all of this money, we will send them prisoners to recoup their expenses and it is cheaper than state-run prisons.

TED SIMONS: Guaranteeing that minimum profit is the only way to get folks in the game.

MARTIN QUEZADA: Absolutely not. I think that is the biggest problem. I think Senator Kavanagh said it perfectly. We are guaranteeing that we are going to put bodies in prison. This is a business model that should not work for the public policy argument. We are ensuring that prison beds are going it be filled. If we cannot fill them, we are guarantying that we will find people to incarcerate or pay taxpayer dollars for empty beds, empty staffing that we would not have to pay. It's a bad public policy.

JOHN KAVANAGH: One of the true ironies of the entire private prison debate, is that the people who are most critical of private prisons are the same people who for the last 20 years were screaming and suing the state over overcrowding in our public prisons. We now build private prisons to reduce the overcrowding, which they said they have a problem with and they now attack us for doing it. They want their cake and want to eat it.

TED SIMONS: The idea that Arizona simply can't afford to build more prisons and ease that overcrowding that is a concern to so many.

MARTIN QUEZADA: Let's look at our prisons today. In every prison, every state-run prison today there are empty beds right now. This isn't a matter of overcrowding, or all of our prisons are overcrowding. This is matter of managing resources in the prisons and ensuring that the inmates are going to the facilities that need them. We may have one facility in one location that is overcrowded, but at the same time we will have a neighboring facility that has empty beds. Let's manage those resources better.

JOHN KAVANAGH: The total count shows that we are a couple of thousand beds short. Now, certain facilities will keep a certain number of beds open. They have to move -- if two prisoners start fighting, they need an empty cell to put one of the fighters. That is normal occupancy levels. But overall, we're a couple of thousand beds overcrowded and the same people who said that is inhuman and sued us in court now object that we found a cost efficient way to solve the problem.

TED SIMONS: Why not house the prisoners in county jails?

JOHN KAVANAGH: That could be an option and in fact county sheriffs have said they want to do that and the governor has rightfully decided to allow them to bid on the contract.

TED SIMONS: Is that an option?

MARTIN QUEZADA: I don't think that necessarily is the best option. The county sheriffs are not even being considered for this, and that is why they jointly, the 15 county sheriffs, jointly stated that the bidding process for these beds do not favor the county sheriffs. They favor the private prison industry.

JOHN KAVANAGH: It is not as simple as that. I asked corrections a couple of years ago, when sheriff Arpaio said I would like to take some of these prisoners, why can't we send them to vacant county beds? And the problem is, is that there are certain standards you have to have to house prisoners. They couldn't meet the standards. Prisoners are long-term holdees. Whereas jails are short term. Most jails don't have the kind of resources, educational, rehabilitative that you need in a prison. If they can upgrade and meet that and they can do a competitive bid, fine with me. I want to save taxpayers money.

MARTIN QUEZADA: I'm glad senator Kavanagh mentioned the services that the prisoners get. Ultimately our prison population in Arizona is growing exponentially, a rate outpacing the growth of our population. Why is that? It's because of public policy decisions that we are making at the capitol, that are incarcerating more people, criminalizing more behavior yet at the same time we are not funding the mental health treatments and substance abuse treatments that will keep these people out of prison in the first place.

TED SIMONS: With that in mind, and to wrap it up here, your critics say this is basically putting profits for the private prison industry above public safety.

JOHN KAVANAGH: What is wrong with profit?

TED SIMONS: Above public safety.

JOHN KAVANAGH: First of all, the only private prison that had any problems, Kingman one, big yellow flag, I applaud the governor for the investigation. Every other private prison that we use has had no problems, no escapes, so safety issues. Concerning profit, my doctor, private office, he makes a profit when he treats me. My dentist. I go to a supermarket, privately owned, they all make profit and they are serve me well. There is nothing wrong with profit. It's a great motivator and it's what made this country great.

TED SIMONS: Last question for you. The idea for these for-profit enterprises they do have an incentive to do a good job.

MARTIN QUEZADA: They absolutely don't have an incentive to do a good job. They have an incentive to help people recidivate so that they can fill the quotas, so they can get people who are not going to be reintegrated into society successfully. They want them to reoffend and be re-incarcerated.

JOHN KAVANAGH: How do they do that?

MARTIN QUEZADA: By not providing the services that they need, by our truth and sentencing laws that they lobby for --

JOHN KAVANAGH: All services are stated in the state contract and they have the same type of rehabilitation that we have in the public prisons. We write the contracts. We demand the standards.

MARTIN QUEZADA: Let's evaluate the effectiveness of the programs. Let's sponsor a bill together to do that, evaluate the effectiveness of it and see, if, in fact, we are reducing recidivism.

JOHN KAVANAGH: JLC is doing that now at my request. I ask them to put other factors in. Some of the other factors aren't going to help your case. One of the things we have to weigh in is money that private prisons give back to the public through property taxes and through corporate income tax. Even some of their profits go back to the people.

TED SIMONS: Last word, please.

MARTIN QUEZADA: Whenever you have a system that their number one motivator is profit, is filling a quota, public safety and everything else comes second.

TED SIMONS: We have to stop it right there. Gentlemen, great discussion, great to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

John Kavanagh : Senator, Martin Quezada : Senator

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024
airs April 16

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates as part of ‘AZ Votes 2024’

The Capital building with text reading: Circle on Circle: Robert Lowell's D.C.
May 2

An evening with ‘Poetry in America’

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 12

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

Poetry in America image with photos of four poets and the name of the show
airs April 18

Mushrooms, Weakness and Doubt 

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: