In the midst of a statewide controversy over private prisons, the Arizona State Legislature’s budget bill released last week eliminates the requirement for a cost and quality review of private prison contracts. 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.
The state recently came under fire for not complying with state statute requiring a quality comparison review of the state’s public and private prisons. After battling a lawsuit over the issue and taking heat from the press, the Arizona Department of Corrections finally issued the first such review in December of 2011.
Cost comparison reviews, also required by statute, have been done every year since 2005 and consistently showed that overall, the state is paying more for private prisons. A report issued in February by the American Friends Service Committee revealed that the state overpaid for private prisons by more than $10 million between 2008 and 2010.
The report also revealed widespread safety problems in private prisons, including malfunctioning cameras and alarms, holes under fences, and staff who were unable or unwilling to follow procedures.
“It is utterly shocking that when faced with overwhelming evidence of the failure of these prisons, our elected representatives chose not to address the problem, but to eliminate the evidence,” said Caroline Isaacs, Program Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Arizona office and author of the report. “It is a disgraceful abdication of their responsibility to safeguard Arizona communities and be good stewards of our tax dollars.”
The move raises further questions about the influence of the private prison industry on Arizona’s elected officials. Recent investigations, including the one released by AFSC last week, revealed that private prison corporations spend millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to federal and state officials.
For example, Rep. John Kavanagh, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has accepted numerous contributions from people associated with GEO Group, which operates three prisons in Arizona and was bidding on the 5,000 bed prison RFP. Kavanagh is also a member of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which came under fire recently for its connection to private prison corporations and its role in SB1070. Kavanagh reported gifts from ALEC over $500 to the Secretary Of State in 2011 (the exact amount was not specified).
Stay tuned to Cell Out AZ for more dirt on campaign contributions from private prisons to the legislators deciding the budget.
Isaacs offered that this “pay to play” system is the most likely explanation of the legislature’s actions. “They’ve just said to the people of Arizona, ‘we don’t care if you are safe and we don’t care if we waste your money.’”