Monday, May 23, 2011

Arizona Dept. of Corrections on private prisons: pay more, get less

Posted By on Mon, May 23, 2011 at 8:30 PM

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With fiscal belt-tightening en vogue and Republicans enjoying new power after last year’s midterm elections, Florida isn’t the only state where prison privatization is being considered in a big way. Arizona is reportedly planning to hand over 5,000 prison beds to private corporations; Ohio is said to be planning on shedding 6,000. (Granted, Florida is unquestionably making the biggest push for privatization of any of the states, well over 10,000 beds, a bold—and some would say, dubious--initiative outlined in further detail in this week’s issue.)

The privatization push has brought plenty of scrutiny about private prisons’ purported cost savings, and last Thursday, the issue finally received attention from the New York Times. The hook of the article is new research by the Arizona Department of Corrections, which, according to the Times, “suggest[s] that privately operated prisons can cost more to operate than state-run prisons — even though they often steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates.” An excerpt:

Five of eight private prisons serving Arizona did not accept inmates with “limited physical capacity and stamina” or severe physical illness or chronic conditions, according to the state’s analysis

None took inmates with “high need” mental health conditions. Some inmates who became sick were “returned to state prisons due to an increase of their medical scores that exceeds contractual exclusions.”

And it’s not just in Arizona: these frustrations were echoed by former Florida Department of Corrections secretary Jim McDonough, who was quoted in our May 19 article. “It was my experience that the private corporations really did not like to deal with the more burdensome inmates

and certainly not [the ones with] health problems,” he tells the Weekly.

McDonough guesses that though private prisons may save money in the short term, the possibility of lawsuits against the state for poor inmate medical care (all inmates, whether in public or private facilities, are ultimately the responsibility of the state Department of Corrections) may make privatization much more costly in the long term. “The risk is there will be near-term corners cut that will be very expensive down the path,” McDonough says.

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