Privately operated prisons are increasingly becoming the norm in Arizona.

Privately operated prisons are increasingly becoming the norm in Arizona. The state currently has eleven prisons operating under contract with for-profit corporations, but a recent escape by three inmates from the Kingman Prison Complex and the resulting murder of an elderly couple in New Mexico have raised questions about the role they play in Arizona.

Stephen Nathan is an author and journalist based in London. He’s editor of Prison Privatization Report International, and has written extensively about the privatization trend. He recently testified at a public hearing in Tucson convened by a panel of elected officials and community leaders. He says the business of for-profit incarceration has grown into a multimillion dollar industry.

Nathan says “people in Arizona should be concerned about the rate at which privatization has expanded with very little public scrutiny and public knowledge.” Management and Training Corporation operates the Kingman Prison, where three prisoners escaped this past summer. Promotional material for the company depicts prisons as a growth industry, and a glossy upbeat design is intended to give investors confidence. Nathan says that it’s an easy sell for MTC, and “any business needs to expand and create returns for its owners and shareholders.”

Susan Maurer is the former Commissioner of Corrections for the State of New Jersey. She now lives in Arizona, and she says that she’s concerned about the implications associated with making a business out of putting people in the prison system. “It’s about what can influence public policy to lock people up for the wrong reasons,” she says. She feels that the incentive to grow the prison population, and to increase profits for shareholders can supersede that of saving taxpayers money, and making communities safer.

Phil Lopes is Arizona State Representative District 27, and was a convener of the public hearing on private prisons. He feels it’s important to have a conversation about the role of private prisons in Arizona before it’s too late, and he laments the fact that representatives of the industry did not agree to participate in the recent public hearings. “I think what transpired here was an opportunity to give voice to a serious problem that is not being addressed by anyone in the Arizona Legislature,” he says. He adds that one of the main arguments used by proponents of private prison has been that they will save the taxpayers money, but the data does not seem to support those claims.

Others invited to the public hearing disputed alleged monetary savings between public prisons and private prisons, and suggested a more productive conversation would involve how to prevent people from becoming criminals. According to state data, Arizona’s prison growth rate exceeded that of every other western state between 2000 and 2008. In 2008, 1 in every 170 Arizonans was in prison, compared to 1 in 749 in 1980. Nathan says that people should be talking about why we, as a society, have embarked on a path of incarcerating such large segments of our population. “When a government hives off what ought to be a fundamental state responsibility to corporations whose interest is not society’s interest as a whole but the corporate bottom line, it brings with it a host of problems that you do not have with publicly run institutions,” he says.

Today, Arizona houses twenty-three percent of its prisoners in private facilities, according to state data. Last year, lawmakers took the unprecedented step of exploring the privatization of almost the entire Arizona correctional system, narrowly failing to pass a bill that would have turned over the state's prisons to private operators for an up-front payment of $100 million.

Representatives from the two private companies currently operating in Arizona did not return requests for comments about the industry, and did not accept invitations to participate in the public hearings.

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