Behind Bars: The Real Cost of Private Prisons

According to Arizona’s former U.S. Democratic Senator Dennis DeConcini, private prisons like Corrections Corp of America are the gold standard in inmate care.

His words, in a recent editorial for the Arizona Republic, paint a rosy picture of private prisons, describing CCA as offering a cost-effective means to provide “humane treatment” without sacrificing “safety, quality and rehabilitation.”

And oh how we’d all like to take Mr. DeConcini, now a board member of CCA, at his word, but unfortunately, the facts play out less like a greeting card and more like a horror show with stories of abuse, violence, greed and lax security.

It doesn’t take more than a simple Google search to find examples of inmate abuse, prisoner escapes and lawsuits against CCA. Wrongful deaths, refusal to provide medications to pregnant women and mentally unstable inmates, using unqualified drug and alcohol counselors and accusations of routine prisoner beatings are just a few of the former and ongoing complaints against CCA that have resulted in legal action.

But Corrections Corp doesn’t stand alone in the saga over public safety concerns among private prisons. GEO Group, LaSalle Southwest Corrections and Management and Training Corp join CCA as the four private prison companies now bidding on additional prison beds in this state.

Each of those companies has a long history of security issues, which should concern legislators. From FBI, Justice Department and EEOC investigations to lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, barbaric conditions and wrongful deaths, these companies offer a litany of reasons as to why private prisons fail to serve the needs and goals of correctional facilities.

One of the corporations, MTC, actually sued Arizona for 10 million dollars after the state pulled a significant portion of its prisoners from the Kingman facility following the escape of three prisoners and subsequent murders of a vacationing Oklahoma couple. Instead of pulling our contract with MTC, this state actually settled the lawsuit for three million dollars. That’s three million dollars Arizona taxpayers gave to a corporation who took eight months to fix gapping security problems. Three million dollars to a corporation who no doubt will be found at least partially at fault for the murders of two individuals.

And now, we stand ready to offer them yet another contract for additional prison beds? Anyone else scratching his or her head over this scenario?

And there’s another, overlooked reason we should be concerned with the rising role private prisons play in corrections. In Arizona, private prisons operate minimum and medium security facilities, meaning all of the inmates housed will eventually be released back into society. That makes rehabilitation a crucial part of incarceration.

Since a large portion of this prison population suffer from addiction and mental disorders, it’s crucial to have qualified counselors and fully funded rehab programs. Breaking an addiction or managing a mental imbalance can provide the type of stability these inmates need to gain control of their lives and live as productive members of society.

However, if the opposite is true and the prisons fail at rehabilitation and instead foster abuse and violence, it’s likely these inmates will reoffend. Failure at rehabilitation creates additional risks for the general population and almost ensures more crime and more victims. And this is something that affects all of us.

So why, knowing all about past problems and current allegations and understanding the huge role rehabilitation plays, would the state continue to offer contracts to private prisons?

They must save us a ton of money, right?


A recent investigation by Arizona Republic reporter Bob Ortega, found that on average, private prisons cost $4.60 more per day per prisoner than state run prisons. And to top it off, this fact alone makes contracting with private prisons unlawful.

Arizona law mandates that private prisons must cost less or provide additional services than public prisons to receive funding. It mandates a biannual review of the safety and quality of private prisons compared to public prisons. But the biannual review has been largely ignored by the Department of Corrections, and they are just now in the process of examining costs, safety and quality.

In the meantime, the state is working to issue additional contracts, turning a blind eye to abuses and willfully breaking the law.

Representative Chad Campbell has proposed a halt to any additional contracts until the undergoing analysis has been completed. One would think this would be a no-brainer, but so far he’s been the lone wolf in sounding the alarm.

Follow the dollar and it’s easy to understand why so many Arizona legislators have given their blessings to the private prison industry. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful lobbying organization, has great influence in the shaping of Arizona policies and purse strings. It was during an ALEC meeting that Senator Russell Pearce worked with CCA to create SB1070 and help ensure the need for additional prison beds.

Representative John Kavanagh, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is a vocal supporter of private prisons. He’s also the recipient of hundreds of dollars in campaign contributions from lobbyists affiliated with private prison groups and a member of ALEC.

Governor Jan Brewer has extensive ties to CCA, both financial and otherwise. Her chief policy advisor and campaign manager, Chuck Coughlin, is a current lobbyist in CCA’s employ, as was her former communications director, Paul Senseman. Governor Brewer and her pet projects have received thousands of dollars in contributions from individuals associated with CCA.

And even if some manage to turn the heat up on the private prison corporations, don’t expect them to walk away without a fight. This is a multi-billion dollar industry. CCA alone has more than $700 million in contracts with just one state: California.

Don’t expect the private prison industry to clean up its act and get serious about safety, either. The small fines imposed by states when prisons fail to adequately staff facilities or maintain acceptable levels of security are just the cost of doing business. And for the private prisons, those costs are small compared to its enormous profits.

One would hope our legislators would take the issue of public safety into consideration when deciding how to proceed, but unfortunately, the lure of greenbacks, particularly those lining election coffers, are sometimes too great to resist.

And so, individuals like myself and others will be watching and waiting to see how Governor Brewer and the rest of the legislature responds to Representative Campbell’s request. If it is dismissed, we’ll know how easy it is to buy influence and how much the rest of us pay when that influence trumps public safety.

Editor’s note: In my original copy of this article, I stated that Representative Kavanagh was the recipient of thousands of dollars in contributions from private prison lobbyists. It should have read hundreds of dollars. My apologies to Mr. Kavanagh and to my readers for this error.


  1. Jay Fleming

    I live near Kingman in Mohave County, and think there’s other important reasons to question private for profit prisons. Many of these institutions use inmate labor, and pay inmates very little, to make them a lot of money. At the same time these companies are lobbying to retain laws that imprison non-violent prisoners, investors are buying and selling the lives of Americans on the stock market. Sounds a lot like slavery to me.

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