Advocates of criminal-justice reform in Arizona enthusiastically praised the U.S. Department of Justice's announcement this week that it will phase out all federal private prison contracts. But proponents of privatization reached by New Times are equally quick to criticize the decision and to emphasize that it won't affect state policy.
"This is nothing but politics. These aren't corrections experts, these are a bunch of liberals that don't like private prisons," declares state senator John Kavanagh, one of Arizona's most vocal supporters of prison privatization. "If the federal position is that these are so unsafe and horrible, but we'll let them sit around and phase them out, it just shows that this is political babble."
Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates made history Thursday morning, publishing a memo instructing federal prison officials to begin "the process of reducing – and ultimately ending – our use of privately operated prisons."
Citing a recent report from the DOJ's Office of the Inspector General, Yates denounced privately run prisons, asserting that they "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources [as government-run prisons]; they do not save substantially on costs; and … they do not maintain the same level of safety and security."
Yates went on to say that "private prisons served an important role during a difficult period, but time has shown that they compare poorly to our own Bureau prisons."
The U.S. government began contracting with private contractors in the 1980s as the population in federal prisons exploded in size. Yet, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of federal prisoners are not housed in privately run facilities. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, private prisons house 16 percent of federal inmates and 6 percent of state inmates.
Kavanagh begs to differ.
"[Private prisons] serve us well, and they run well," he asserts. "There are problems, sure, but there are problems in state prisons. Whenever you pack a place with felons, there are problems."
As he has for years, Kavanagh takes issue with claims that private prisons cost more to run.
"We get a good deal," he says, referring to Arizona. "Our studies, confirmed by the [Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Council], show that they're cheaper."
Of course, that assertion is open to debate.
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has been fighting private prisons in Arizona for years. In an e-mail to New Times, AFSC program director Caroline Isaacs writes, "Actually, the Arizona DOC did cost savings comparisons from 2005-2010, which consistently showed negligible savings in minimum security prisons and that the medium security private prisons actually cost more. … Kavanagh is referring to his OWN study (which is just a memo he requested from JLBC)."
Keep in mind, Isaacs adds, "He is the person who actually removed the state statute requiring cost and quality comparison reviews, so any reference he makes to 'studies' is bunk."
Isaacs is correct: In 2012, Kavanagh helped get language into that year's state budget to "eliminate the requirement for a quality and cost review of private prison contracts." Defending the move, he told CBS5, "It's a study that was biased from the beginning and never used. ... So rather than have a report that is biased and nobody listens to and costs money to produce, we simply eliminated it."
"The private-prison industry here in the state — they have such a hold on the majority party in our legislature," seconds AFSC spokeswoman Emily Verdugo. "The amount of our budget for private prisons is ridiculous."
Verdugo points to the industry's powerful lobbying arm, which, she says, frequently rewards its political supporters with large campaign contributions. She cites Kavanagh and Arizona governor Doug Ducey as two of the biggest beneficiaries.
"Any money I get from prison interests is a drop in the bucket," Kavanagh scoffs. "All of us get money from a diverse number of people. To suggest that any time a politician gets a donation from an industry, we're biased, well — people just apply that to individuals they don't like individually."
Reached for comment about the DOJ's decision, Doug Ducey's spokesman Daniel Scarpinato replied via e-mail, "On this issue, we make decisions based on what is in the best interest of public safety, and of the taxpayers. Those decisions are made each year as we put together a balanced budget, and we will continue to do so."
Criminal-justice reform advocates like Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, balk at such statements.
"We here in Arizona have painstakingly documented the history of these private prisons not providing good care," Soler says. "The problem with privately run facilities is that as for-profit corporations, they are in the business of generating the greatest amount of money possible by any means. So providing safe and humane conditions for those behind bars is sort of a distant goal."
Like Isaacs and Verdugo, Soler is excited by Yates' announcement but isn't especially optimistic. "We hope that [the DOJ announcement] will have an impact on our policies in Arizona, but there's no indicator that it will," she says.
"The lobbyists are very connected and have the ear of the people in power — that's the conflict of interest that arises."
Read the August 18 Memo from Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates:
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.