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Arizona Budget Proposal Assumes New Private Prison Beds Will Cost More Than Public Facilities

Zach Perrino was incarcerated in both public and private prisons throughout Arizona. He says he never felt safe in any of them, but there was a time during a violent 2015 riot at the Kingman prison when Perrino truly feared for his life:

“I remember kind of making peace with myself,” Perrino said. “You know, this is probably where my story ends.”

Thirteen people were hospitalized and more than 1,000 prisoners, including Perrino, were moved to different facilities.

He said the private prison, run by Management and Training Corporation, was short staffed, and the administrators had been cutting corners and reducing programming.

“They just kept taking stuff away, taking stuff away. And then they just started locking the yard down,” he said. “So we would get locked down for two, three weeks at a time — controlled movement — and people just got upset and they had enough, you know.”

After the riot, the state gave the Kingman prison contract to another company, the GEO group.

Kingman is one of six private prisons Arizona contracts with to hold people in state custody. In addition to Geo Group and MTC, which still runs the Marana prison, the state also contracts with CoreCivic.

Two decades ago, just a few thousand prisoners in state custody were housed in private facilities. But that number has steadily grown over the years. In 2016, there were 6,400 prisoners in the private prisons, which was 18% of the total population. Five years later, 7,200 prisoners are in private prisons, making up 20% of the total population. And soon, the state will shift even more incarcerated people into private facilities.

In his 2020 State of the State address, Gov. Doug Ducey announced plans to close the Florence prison, one of the oldest prisons and home to death row inmates and the execution chamber.

While Ducey claimed shuttering the prison ultimately will save taxpayers money, the state plans to spend millions of dollars in the coming years to transition thousands of prisoners from Florence and into private facilities.

At a recent House Democratic Caucus, members of the state Legislature were trying to figure out exactly how much money that transition is going to cost.

Joint Legislative Budget Committee Staff member Geoff Paulsen told lawmakers “The actual, literal increase to the private prison per diem line item as a result of this policy is about $25.4 million.”

The increase comes from higher per diem rates, which are the cost to house one prisoner for one day. While per diem rates vary by facility and by security level, the most recent average cost estimate from the Department of Corrections for the public prisons is $71 per day. According to Paulsen, the JLBC analysis of the new budget found “this spending plan assumes a $85 per diem for these new private prison beds.”

The DOC budget also calls for an additional $16 million for existing private prison contracts, to pay for staff salary increases and rising costs of healthcare. At the caucus, Representative Diego Rodriguez asked JLBC staffer Paulsen where that $16 million figure came from.

“Is this simply a process where the private prison vendors submit their requests and then we just — grant it?” Rodriguez asked. “Yes,” Paulsen responded, “they do, sort of, reach out with a request for increases to their contracted rates.”

Rodriguez said he was concerned that there was no documentation provided to justify the increase in Department of Corrections spending on private prison contracts “Because we don’t have a good track record in Arizona of holding the Department accountable for, really, hardly anything it does.”

State law used to require the Department of Corrections to submit a report every two years on the cost comparisons between private prisons and state prisons. But the Legislature repealed that mandate in 2013.

“I firmly believe it was eliminated because they knew that if the people of Arizona were actually given the hard numbers, they would see that we are in fact paying more for private prison beds than what it would cost us to handle this traditionally governmental duty in house,” Rodriguez said.

The contracts between Arizona and the private prisons contain occupancy guarantees ranging from 90% to 100%. This means, no matter how many people are actually in the prisons, the state is obligated to pay for a set amount of beds.

Rebecca Fealk, program coordinator for American Friends Service Committee of Arizona, said private prisons, by their very nature, are more focused on generating profits than providing safe and secure living conditions for incarcerated people.

“It doesn’t make any sense, especially with the recent decline in Arizona’s prison population, to increase the Department of Corrections’ budget or sign onto another problematic private prison contract,” Fealk said.

A spokesperson for the GEO Group said the new funding will “help to ensure proper staffing and the continued delivery of high-quality services.”

CoreCivic and Management and Training Corporation declined to comment.

Alexandra Wilkes is a spokesperson for the Day 1 Alliance, a trade association for the private prison industry. She said private prisons can be flexible partners to the government system, to relieve overcrowding and help during transition periods like the closure of Florence.

“At the end of the day, it’s the government setting the contract,” she said. “And the contractor has to adhere to the terms of the contract — that’s the heart of the relationship.”

Zach Perrino said it took him a long time to realize how that relationship impacted him.

“My misery was profited off of,” Perrino said. “My hurt and my pain — someone cashed a paycheck off that.”

Perrino thinks there’s a better way to use state resources.

"Why don't we invest in people?" he asked. "If we spent more money treating mental illness and drug addiction, we wouldn't need public or private prisons."

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Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.