OK, nobody’s pretending that Arizona State Legislators listen to NPR. But if they did, they might learn that they are about to make a $65 million mistake in awarding contracts for 5,000 more private prison beds in Arizona.
The reports both focus on the exploits of the GEO Group, the nation’s second largest private prison company and one of the bidders for a lucrative new contract here in Arizona. Sadly, these problems are not limited to one corporation—there are similar examples on the rap sheets of every for-profit prison operator. That’s because they all have the same problem: They are in the business of making money first, and they will always prioritize profits over protecting the public or rehabilitating prisoners.
A two-part expose aired last month lays out two of the inherent risks in handing over corrections to for-profit corporations:
- The profit motive trumps rehabilitation
- Small towns can get left holding the bag for empty prisons when the prison corporations go after more lucrative contracts
The first installment, “Town Relies on Troubled Youth Prison for Profit,” details how a small town became so financially dependent on the Walnut Grove juvenile prison that elected officials, monitors, and other government actors have repeatedly turned a blind eye to rampant abuses against incarcerated youth. NPR found that the prison is paying the town $15,000 in lieu of taxes, paying $4,500/month to the Correctional Authority, and even “reimbursing” the salary of the corrections employee whose job is to monitor how the prison is run.
Who’s going to let a little sexual abuse, drug trafficking, or medical neglect in comparison get in the way of such a cash cow?
In the second part of the expose (the amusingly alliterative, “Private Prison Promises Leave Texas Towns in Trouble”), NPR reveals how a small rural town was left on the verge of bankruptcy after GEO Group pulled out of a contract to run their detention center. To avoid defaulting on the loan they took out to build the prison, the city has “raised property taxes, increased water and sewer fees, laid off workers and held off on buying a new police car.”
Citizens of towns like Globe, Eloy, Sahuarita, and Benson would do well to study this report. The story and even the actors may be uncomfortably familiar. Here’s how it goes:
- A guy by the name of James Parkey comes to your town representing a company named Corplan
- He makes a sales pitch to your Mayor and Council promising a brand-spanking new prison for immigrants, or state inmates, or inmates from another state that won’t cost you a cent to build. The private operator will finance, construct, and operate the prison and pay off the costs with the money generated by the contracts they get to put inmates in the facility
- Your town elders, desperate for jobs and economic development sign on the dotted line
- Everything is swell until you can’t find any inmates
- The town is left scrambling to keep from defaulting on the bonds for the prison; the town’s credit rating is down graded making it hard for the town to borrow money for new schools or hospitals; and drastic measures are taken like raising taxes, laying off workers, and putting off other important projects or purchases
Think it can’t happen here? Prisoners aren’t as easy to come by as they once were. Crime is down, and many cash-strapped states turn to sentencing reform to reduce prison populations and save money.
In some cases, horrendous abuses and lawsuits against the prison corporations have led states to cancel contracts. This is the case in Hawaii: That state’s Governor has pledged to pull their prisoners out of a CCA prison in Eloy, Arizona after abuses and deaths in that company’s Saguaro Detention Center came to light. CCA is currently the largest employer in Pinal County, and is most likely one of the bidders on those 5,000 new beds.
It’s pretty clear that our state legislators are not listening to the warning signs. Maybe it was those steak dinners that CCA paid for at the ALEC meeting or the donation checks they got during the last election cycle. So, that means it’s up to the voters and taxpayers to get the facts and make our voices heard. Private prisons aren’t good economic development. They’re a short-sighted boondoggle that could leave our children on the hook for our leader’s poor decisions.