Big House Inc.

Arizona is a tough-on-crime state.

Between 1977 and 2003, the number of Arizona prison inmates increased nearly 1,000 percent, from 3,229 to 30,083.

But as legislators and policy leaders toughened sentencing requirements, they failed to provide enough money for housing these prisoners.

As of February 2003, the Arizona Department of Corrections had 3,733 more inmates than its facilities could handle.

The overcrowding crisis has powered a new movement in the state Legislature prison privatization.

The idea: Let private companies build lots more prisons. Let private companies manage the prisons. Let private companies staff the prisons.

Or, pay a private prison in another state to house inmates from Arizona.

All these ideas have either been implemented or are on the table here. And several legislators are pushing for further privatization to help alleviate the state's $1.3 billion budget shortfall.

Prison privatization is a brain child of free-market economists. Businesses run more efficiently than governments. Competition is good. Competition will drive down the price of prisons while at least maintaining the quality of service.

But while privatization of government services has been successful in some areas, it's proven disastrous when correctional facilities are involved. In place of savings and quality of service, a New Times investigation shows, states that privatize are often confronted with profiteering, inmate and guard assault and abuse, sub-poverty wages for employees and political scandals.

In Arizona, it's no different.

One of the most troubled private prison companies in the United States, Correctional Services Corporation, already houses 636 Arizona inmates in a facility in Newton, Texas. CSC also operates a minimum-security prison in Arizona for the DOC and has bids out to house thousands more inmates.

Last month, CSC was fined a record $300,000 by the New York (state) Lobbying Commission for failing to report free transportation, meals and other gifts it had given to legislators in an effort to keep more than $22 million in contracts.

In Arizona, CSC gave legislators $5,849, making it by far the largest campaign contributor among private prison corporations. Other prison companies combined for only $550 in contributions.

CSC has one full-time lobbyist in Arizona, and several key legislators have received campaign contributions from the company. CSC's president James Slattery and his wife gave $4,404 to legislators before the 2002 Arizona election. Together, they rank fifth in the amount of money given by any general business interest.

Besides a history of heavy-handed lobbying, the company has attracted the attention of government regulators for providing substandard services.

For example, in Florida, besides a litany of guard abuse and inmate escapes, investigators discovered CSC was holding inmates past their release dates so the company could collect more per diem dollars from the state.

Closer to home, CSC guards just a month after Arizona sent its first group of inmates to an out-of-state private prison failed to control a riot of 84 Arizona prisoners in January at the company's Texas facility.

When Hawaii investigators came to Florence, Arizona, to investigate severe problems with the housing of Hawaiian inmates at the jail operated by another large firm, Corrections Corporation of America, company officials told female investigators they could not enter the facility because guards, according to a report, "could not ensure their safety."

Still, the privatization idea and the influence of Correctional Services Corporation and companies like it grow in Arizona. Private prisons have already housed more than half a million inmates in the state, and proponents are rabid for more privatization.

Senate Bill 1126, introduced by senators Robert Burns and Robert Blendu, calls for the sale of all Arizona medium-security prisons to the highest bidder. That bill probably will die in committee, but proponents have said the idea is sure to appear later in other legislative budget proposals.

According to campaign finance reports, Burns received $774 from private corrections companies, $514 of that from CSC. The Slatterys together were Burns' largest contributor other than his own election committee.

Another bill proposing the state build a private prison in Mexico to house Mexican nationals convicted of crimes in Arizona also was narrowly defeated.

But the state is in the process of finding a private prison corporation to build and manage a 1,400-bed prison for Arizona's minimum-security inmates, as well as a 3,200-bed prison to house female inmates of all classification levels. If built, that women's facility would be the largest prison in Arizona.

And some legislators want more.

"I can see us going private with all the medium security," says state Representative Russell Pearce, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a longtime proponent of prison privatization. "Look, competition is good. And private companies have proven they can do it cheaper while meeting our standards. Why not move forward?"

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Robert Nelson