Arizona risks creating problems by privatizing state prison system

December 7, 2009 — by Ben Clement

The recent recession has had many unfortunate side effects. It’s impossible to open a newspaper or watch a news show without hearing a heart-wrenching tale about the millions of newly unemployed.

As if these reminders of the recession didn’t create enough anxiety, Arizona residents now have another reason to fear for their safety and security. In mid-October, the state announced its intention to sell nine of the state’s 10 medium to high-security prisons to companies in hopes of garnering a small sum: $100 million to be exact. This money will help alleviate the state’s nearly $2 billion budget shortfall.

While political cartoonists could hardly ask for a better scenario in which to exercise their artistic abilities, the situation becomes less simplistic and humorous in lieu of the serious budget crisis most states are suffering, especially California. While Arizona’s “privatizing of prisons” may sound ludicrous, the context of these desperate measures make them seem less desperate after all.

However, the problem with this plan is the assumption that private companies will be able to manage the prisons in a less expensive and better manner than the state. These companies will already be in the red because of the ante they will have to invest in order to to assume control of the prisons. Any savings accrued by these companies would have to be split with Arizona, which would then pay on a per-prisoner basis.

If they wish to make any profit out of this venture, these companies are going to have to cut corners. The first thing to go will be inmate education programs, followed closely by pay cuts among the prison staff. While the experienced peace officers may have the luxury of walking away from such a salary slash, other, lower-ranked officers will not, leaving the security of the prison to inexperienced and underpaid employees.

There’s a reason it’s called a “corrections” facility. The idea is to educate the inmates and provide them with incentives to obey the law. It’s already difficult enough for a former inmate to find a job dragging along a criminal record. Life without a livelihood or potential to contribute to the community can easily boomerang an ex-convict back in prison, where conditions may be friendlier than those among society

One of the biggest fears shared by opponents of the experiment is that the private companies are not equipped to handle high-security and death row inmates. Prison wardens in the private sector, who right now only manage low to medium security prisoners, are currently paid less than their public counterparts. This may explain why there have been so many incidents of high profile riots and escapes since the private prison surge in the mid ’80s.

Economics teacher Todd Dwyer often states, “We regulate business because business cannot regulate itself,” meaning business often sacrifices morals and ideals for profit. Based on this postulate, is it really in our best interest to allow the corrections system to come under private management?

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