Whether through law troubles involving the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio or profiling laws that garner national attention, Arizona has consistently remained controversial when it comes to issues dealing with police and prisons. Recently, a prison riot at the privately managed Arizona State Prison in Kingman prompted outcries for reform and shed light onto the many inadequacies of private prison companies.
In early July a riot broke out at the state prison in Kingman, which caused injury to seven inmates and nine prison staffers and forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 prisoners. Over the course of the following days, several more conflicts broke out in separate wings of the facility, causing Gov. Doug Ducey to order an investigation of Management & Training Corporation, the company that operates the prison and other private prisons in the state.
The incident in July, though, is not isolated but rather part of a long history of problems that occur at privately owned prisons. The past five years at the Kingman prison alone have seen an inmate’s death after severe beating and sexual harassment, and the escape of three prisoners who subsequently murdered two people in New Mexico. Now, the culmination of these problems and the recent investigation of the Kingman facility have forced Ducey to sever the Kingman contract with MTC — despite continuing to do business with them at another private prison in Arizona.
The riots and recent inquiries have exposed the egregious issues and blatant mismanagement on behalf of the oversight company which was referred to in the report as having “a culture of disorganization, disengagement and disregard” when it comes to following state standards.
Furthermore, the corporation was accused of ignoring “fundamental inmate management and security principles” in the 116-page Department of Corrections Report. Even more disturbing, though, is the fact that more than one-third of the problems found during this investigation mirror issues discovered during an examination of the prison five years ago — meaning MTC failed to solve institutional problems exposed during the last controversy.
Yet, despite the continued problems, Ducey has decided, according to The Arizona Republic, to offer the nearly $70 million contract in Kingman to the highest bidder, ensuring another private company will soon own and operate the facility. And, despite claims from proponents, privately managed prisons have not been shown to be more cost-effective than public ones. In fact, studies by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics have shown that private prisons may actually be more expensive than public ones, owing to the fact that a disproportionate number of inmates have been sent to private prisons because they cost less to house.
According to Corrections Connection Network News, “a 2005 study found that Arizona’s public facilities were seven times more likely to house violent offenders and three times more likely to house those convicted of more serious offenses.” Rather than cutting costs, private prisons simply house the cheapest, least violent inmates — yet they still suffer from large riots and escapees. Additionally, the report found that inmates weren’t targeting each other in the riots, but rather the staff, signifying “that the riots were more likely precipitated by inmate dissatisfaction with MTC’s operation of the prison than by anger among the inmates themselves.”
Instead of making the decision that would cut costs, ensure more proper management of the prison system and provide a greater sense of public safety, Ducey is not only reselling the Kingman contract but has also chosen to increase the number of private prison beds by 2,000.
Dr. Michael Polakowski, a criminology professor at the UA, is one of many opposed to private prisons.
“Whenever you create multi-year contracts with very little oversight, you are inviting profit-making institutions to cut corners,” he said. “So, the existing contracts are not sustainable. This does not mean that we could not do a better job of writing contracts with specific goals in mind and holding the private contractors accountable to these goals.”
Dr. Polakowski is right; private prisons are unsustainable. Because their primary goal is profit, they follow regulations grudgingly and disregard others completely. After the escape of the three prisoners in 2010, The Arizona Republic reported, “it took eight months and a formal threat by [Corrections Director Charles] Ryan to terminate MTC’s contract before the company shored up security to the department’s satisfaction at Kingman.”
As long as the state government continues to allow this type of mismanagement to occur without serious consequences, private prisons will remain dangerous and prone to conflict.