Arizona needs more prisons to keep up with its growing inmate population, which already exceeds the intended capacity by an estimated 4,500 bodies. But who will build them?
Lawmakers are divided on the issue of allowing for-profit companies to construct more prison walls, the latest chapter in a long-standing debate over the merits of a privately run prison system.
The state is soliciting offers from private companies to house 3,000 inmates. The contract is worth millions to the winner.
For the first time in state history, however, the Arizona Department of Corrections is allowed to compete against those companies for the business.
The change resulted from an eleventh-hour deal in 2006 between GOP lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who has opposed most efforts toward privatization.
So, in order to allow the state to solicit private companies, the governor required that the corrections department also be allowed to bid.
Republican lawmakers are now regretting that deal. They say the department has an unfair advantage and could cost taxpayers more money in the end.
“Why we would allow the department of corrections to compete is beyond me, because I don’t think this is a very fair process,” said Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.
Because the department is a state-run agency, Pearce believes it has chased away private companies that might have sought the contract.
So far, no one has responded to the state’s request for proposals since it was issued in December. Still, it’s expected that three major prison companies — Geo Group, Management Training Corp. and Corrections Corporation of America — are expected to apply by the Feb. 8 deadline.
Representatives of those companies would not comment on the details of their potential bids.
Another worry among lawmakers is that the corrections department helped write the request for proposals on which it is authorized to bid.
Arizona Department of Administration spokesman Alan Ecker, whose agency oversees the bidding process, said it had to consult with corrections department officials to determine the prison system’s needs.
The 128-page request outlines the specific requirements that must be met to win the contract. For example, the state wants the additional prison space available by April 2008.
“You just can’t put a request out there for 3,000 beds without any specifics,” Ecker said.
In addition, he said the team of consultants that crafted the bid request has been separated from those working on responding to it.
“You have to keep in mind that these two teams are walled off from each other,” he said.
Despite the standing request for private bids, Napolitano and other Democrats say state-run prisons are more efficient than the alternative.
“We think the department is the best choice and can do the job better than private companies,” said Mike Haener, chief lobbyist for the governor.
He pointed to an independent study completed last year by an independent accounting firm that estimates state-run prisons saved taxpayers between $3.5 million and $5.3 million in fiscal year 2003-04.
But James Hamm, a critic of the existing state-run prison system, said regardless of the costs, privatizing the system would only make it worse.
“I just can’t say this is the way to go,” he said. Hamm said privatizing prisons adds another level of secrecy by blocking public scrutiny. That, he said, opens the door to prisoner abuse. Regardless of who wins the contract, the state still faces an overcrowding situation. The 3,000 additional beds created by the new contract will not be enough, officials said. Napolitano also has plans to add capacity for an additional 1,000 inmates, which will still leave a crowding problem.
To deal with the crowded conditions, Arizona has been sending prisoners to other states at a premium, which Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, said hurts taxpayers. The cost per day to house an inmate jumps from $53 to as much as $70 if the inmate is sent to another state.