Death row may go private in Arizona


FLORENCE, Ariz. — One of the newest residents on Arizona's death row, serial killer Dale Hausner, poked his head up from his television to look at several visitors strolling by, each of whom wore face masks and vests to protect against the sharp homemade objects that often are propelled from the cells of the condemned.

It is a dangerous place to patrol, and Arizona spends $4.7 million each year to house inmates such as Hausner in a super-maximum-security prison. But in a first in the criminal-justice world, the state's death-row inmates could become the responsibility of a private company.

State officials soon will seek bids from private companies for nine of the state's 10 prison complexes that house roughly 40,000 inmates, including the 127 on death row. It is the first attempt by a state to put its entire prison system under private control.

The privatization effort, in its breadth and aggressive financial goals, demonstrates what states — broke, desperate and often overburdened with prisoners and their associated costs — are willing to do to balance the books. Arizona officials hope the effort will put a $100 million dent in the state's roughly $2 billion budget shortfall.

"Let's not kid ourselves," said Andy Biggs, a Republican in the state Legislature who supports private prisons. "If we were not in this economic environment, I don't think we'd be talking about this with the same sense of urgency."

Private prison companies generally build facilities for a state and charge per prisoner to run them. But under the Arizona legislation, a vendor would pay $100 million upfront to operate one or more prison complexes. Assuming the company could operate the prisons more cheaply or efficiently than the state, any savings would be equally divided between the state and the firm.

Questions raised


The privatization move has raised questions about the ability of the private sector to handle the state's most hardened criminals. While executions would be performed by the state, officials said, the Department of Corrections would relinquish all other day-to-day operations to the private operator and pay a per-diem fee for each prisoner.

"I would not want to be the warden of death row," said Todd Thomas, the warden of a prison in Eloy, Ariz., run by the Corrections Corporation of America. The company, the country's largest private prison operator, has six prisons in Arizona with inmates from other states. "That's not to say we couldn't," Thomas added.

James Austin, a co-author of a Department of Justice study in 2001 on prison privatization and president of the JFA Institute, a corrections-consulting firm, said companies tend to oversee minimum- and medium-security inmates and have little experience with the most dangerous prisoners.

"As for death row," Austin said, "it is a very visible entity, and if something bad happens there, you will have a pretty big news story for the Legislature and governor to explain."

Arizona is no stranger to private prisons. Nearly 30 percent of the state's prisoners are being held in prisons run by firms outside the state's 10 complexes. Further, other states have contracts with companies to house their prisoners in Arizona.

Under the Arizona legislation, any bidder would have to take an entire complex — many of them mazes of multiple levels of security risks and complexity — and would not be permitted to pick off the cheapest or easiest buildings and inmates. The state also wants to privatize prisoners' medical care. <- But isn't government health care cheaper/better?

Potential problems

Throughout the years, there have been high-profile riots, escapes and other violent incidents. The companies also do not generally provide the same wages and benefits as states, which has resulted in resistance from unions and concerns that the private facilities attract less-qualified workers.

The federal government, with a surge of new immigrant inmates, also contracts with firms. The number of federal prisoners in private prisons in the U.S. has more than doubled, to 32,712 in 2008 from 15,524 in 2000. The number of state prisoners in privately run prisons has increased to 93,500 from 75,000 in that time.