Rodney Gifford’s letter in last week’s Times (“Sweetheart deal”) contained a number of factual errors. Arizona’s use of private prison facilities is a sweetheart deal; but for the taxpayers, because non-partisan studies show that private prisons are less expensive.
In addition, the 7,600 empty beds in public facilities that Gifford claims we could use instead of private prisons don’t exist. An additional 2,350 beds will be needed to replace beds lost due to the closure of Florence prison; 800 beds in Lewis prison are unavailable due to lock deficiencies and we anticipate the influx of several thousand additional prisoners later this year, as the covid-related logjam that has slowed down court sentencing breaks up. There are no 7,600 excess beds.
Gifford’s cynical suggestion that private prison companies donate to legislators to buy support for their contracts is also untrue. The reality is that people donate to elected officials whose policies they agree with. Ordinary citizens do that every day. I supported private prison utilization years before I ever received one penny from the industry and what I have received is a minuscule part of my overall donations over time.
Finally, the answer as to why we guarantee private prisons 90 percent prisoner occupancy is because it’s part of a great deal. We give private prisons occupancy guarantees because private prisons build the prisons for us and after 20 or 25 years, they turn the deeds over to us. What company in their right mind would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a prison only to have the state say we’re not using it after one year?
I do not support replacing all of Arizona’s public prisons with private ones. However, it benefits Arizona to have a reasonable mix of the two, especially Arizona taxpayers whom I think of first.