Is the problem privately operated prisons?

Or is the real issue Arizona’s failure to get over its “Get tough on crime” fixation and achieve real public safety?

And if so, why the roadblock to real reform and what can be done to break through it?

The riots earlier this month at the privately run Kingman state prison have certainly restarted the conversation about who should be in charge of coercive detention in a free society. This is a medium security facility, and yet the contractors could not manage prisoner discontent in a way that resolved conflict nonviolently. When most of your expenses are in personnel (the state pays for the facility), the incentive to cut costs on payroll to make a profit would seem high.

Stakes are high

But this isn’t a garbage collection contract. The stakes are much higher: Society expects all but the most hardcore inmates to return eventually to society and live productive lives. If our prisons create conditions that assure a 50 percent recidivism rate, public safety is endangered along with the public treasury. And more than a few experts now compare America’s mass incarceration epidemic to a public health crisis, with millions of prisoners in poor physical and mental health.

So it’s not just the way prisons are run but the rate at which convicts are locked up and the length of their sentences that really matter. As the Arizona Daily Star reported last month, Arizona locks up more residents per capita than any other Western state, at 589 per 100,000 residents. It's one of three states that still requires inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence — even for non-violent crimes.

The state's approach is at odds with a recent shift away from tough-on-crime models. In 2013, 35 states passed laws to change their sentencing laws, bolster alternatives to prison and help keep convicts from reoffending.

Spending without results

In Arizona, the Department of Corrections’ budget for the upcoming fiscal year tops $1 billion and makes up 11 percent of the state’s general fund. That's an increase of 40 percent in seven years.

By comparison, spending on economic security in Arizona dropped 18 percent since the 2009 recession and spending on K-12 education dropped 12 percent.

And prison growth here promises to continue, with 1,000 medium-security beds to be added by fiscal year 2017 at a cost of $24.2 million.

Despite a prevailing belief that the best way to prevent crime is to put — and keep — offenders behind bars, recent studies find no correlation between incarceration and low crime rates.

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In 2013, Arizona, with the sixth highest incarceration rate in the nation, averaged 429 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 387 per 100,000 people, data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show. The state also had more property crimes, at 3,540 per 100,000 people compared to the national average of 2,800 per 100,000.

Even Texas

The states with the biggest declines in incarceration rates since 2000 — New Jersey, New York and California — have seen the most significant drops in crime. With less money going to prisons, those states are doing more to keep people from being sent back behind bars.

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Texas has also led the way on prison reform after seeing it as an state budget issue. In 2007, legislators in that state were asked to spend $2 billion for up to 17,000 new prison beds. Since 1987, Texas had tripled its prison cells, from 50,000 up to 150,000, and the legislature decided to look for cheaper and more effective alternatives.

The state spent $241 million to hire more probation officers, boost drug courts, expand residential and outpatient treatment programs, and create pre-trial diversion programs for offenders with mental illness and addiction issues.

The savings so far: $3 billion, according to an outside study.

Revolving door

Arizona leaders, however, have put into place a privatized approach that provides profits to corporations, who in turn make campaign contributions and lobby the Legislature and governor to keep the prison doors open. Gov. Jan Brewer employed a former prison lobbyist as her deputy chief of staff, and her chief political adviser also did prison consulting. Two board members of the Corrections Corporation of America were, until recently, members of the Board of Regents, and CCA employed as its chief lobbyist the former state superintendent of schools. The Legislature in 2012 protected the industry by passing a law prohibiting the state from studying whether private prisons are any more effective and efficient than state-run ones.

With that kind of web of connections, it’s no wonder the prison industrial complex has a stranglehold on not only prison operations in Arizona but the nondebate about reform. The American Friends Service Committee, also known as the Quakers, has long campaigned for prison reform, and they have started to gain traction in Arizona as other states show the economic and social benefits. They have targeted Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan to award private prison contracts for up to 2,000 new beds this month under the title: “No new prisons. $50 million for….”

That’s a provocative slogan in a state that ranks at the bottom in funding for public schools and has cut its higher education spending since 2008 more than any other in the nation. With so many political and structural hurdles in the way of comprehensive prison reform, it may be that targeting private contracts is the only way to start.

Eyes on the prize

But we urge citizens to keep their eyes on the prize: a safer, healthier and more productive Arizona. Those outcomes, as other states have shown, are tied to fewer people spending so much time behind bars. If current state leaders simply don’t want to hear or discuss the race to the bottom that is mass incarceration, then it’s time to question why we continue to follow them.

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