On December 9, 2013, Democratic Perspective aired an interview with Dianne Post. Post is an attorney and leader of the Arizona Justice Alliance, a statewide coalition dedicated to exposing the problems with prisons.
According to Post, 23 percent of Arizona prisoners are in private prisons. The majority are immigrants in prisons run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which just happens to have connections to the governor’s office. Those connections include her Chief of Staff and his wife who previously served as lobbyists for CCA. In addition, Governor Brewer’s campaign manager was a CCA lobbyist.
Arizona is the top imprisonment state in the West. It also spends more on prisons than any other state in the US. A big reason for the cost is the state’s reliance on private prisons. According to a study by the Tucson Citizen, private prisons cost the State of Arizona $3.5 million more per year than public prisons.
Ironically, the one exception is Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City.
Like the name suggests, Tent City is a series of canvas tents in the desert with no heat or air conditioning. The bathrooms are portable toilets. Prisoners are made to wear pink underwear. And prisoners are served two meals a day. One meal consists of milk, juice, porridge and a hard roll. The other consists of a green baloney sandwich. Yet, despite the primitive conditions, Tent City costs more per prisoner than any other jail or prison in Arizona. Worse, Tent City’s recidivism is 14 percent higher than the national average.
The higher cost of private prisons is actually a violation of Arizona law, according to Post. The law makes it illegal to pay a company more for something the public can do for less. Yet, when the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s contracts with private prisons, the suit failed. The court ruled that the AFSC had no legal standing in the case. The Arizona legislature then changed the law.
Post said that, even though Arizona currently has 43,000 prison beds and 39,000 prisoners, the state wants to build even more private prisons with up to 5,000 new beds. And Arizona is one of only four states that guarantee 100 percent occupancy for private prisons. This is certain to add to the cost.
One of the proposed prisons is a new Supermax facility at the Lewis State Prison Complex in Buckeye. The state is finalizing plans to spend $50 million to hold up to 500 prisoners in solitary cells for 23 hours a day, an expenditure that an editorial in the Arizona Republic said “flies in the face of common sense.”
There are already 2,000 maximum-security inmates in solitary confinement in Arizona prisons, many of them LGBT prisoners. These are people who have been victimized by the general prison population, yet our policies tend to punish the victims. Research shows that solitary confinement forever changes prisoners making them unprepared for life, even simple human interactions. Yet 96 percent of these people will one day be released.
As Post said, “When you treat people like animals, how do they act?”
Criminologists know that the best deterrent to crime is certainty of punishment more than the length and severity of punishment. They know that each dollar of drug treatment saves $18.02. But our politicians pay no attention. We also know that education prevents crime. Yet we now pay 40 percent more for prisons than we do for education.
To learn more, listen to the entire interview on podcast.