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Tucson Hearing Puts Spotlight on Private Prisons in Arizona
Breaking News Highlights for-profit prison companies’ role in state legislation
Photo: Mike Wilson, Tohono O'odham who puts out water for migrants
TUCSON -- Wednesday night in Tucson, an overflow crowd heard testimony from experts and the public about the risks and suspect practices of the private prison industry across Arizona, the nation and internationally. The Hearing was presided over by a panel of Conveners representing a bipartisan spectrum of county, city and state elected officials.
Testimony was presented by a range of experts, including prison staff and administrators, attorneys, researchers, and even a real estate appraiser. Stephen Nathan, researcher and journalist, traveled all the way from London, England to lend his expertise on the practice of prison privatization worldwide. Members of the audience were also given the opportunity to present testimony to the panel, and included representatives of religious congregations, formerly incarcerated people, and an organization representing prisoners from Hawaii who are incarcerated in for-profit prisons in Arizona. Representatives of the private prison companies and the Arizona Department of Corrections, although invited, were noticeably absent at the event.
This important hearing, designed to prompt dialogue among policy-makers and the public, raised important questions about the perceived cost savings of private prisons, the safety of their facilities, the lack of accountability to the public of for-profit corporations, and the larger ethical concerns associated with profiting from incarceration.
From Mike Wilson of the Tohono O’odham Nation to Joe Glen of the Maricopa & Pima Juvenile Corrections Associations, the theme was the same: Companies such as Corrections Corporation of America, Management Training Corporation, and the GEO group consistently focus on profit over safety and rehabilitation of those who are incarcerated in their facilities.
Coming directly on the heels of the Tucson Hearing was a scathing report from National Public Radio exposing the influence that private prison corporations had in the development of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB1070. Corrections Corporation of America, which holds contracts with the federal government to incarcerate immigrants, was a key player in creating a law that would increase the number of immigrants in detention, thus representing the potential for tremendous corporate profits. The report describes how a shadowy organization called ALEC provided opportunities for corporations to meet with state legislators to draft model legislation, which those legislators later took back to their states.
What the NPR report does not reveal is that this practice dates back literally decades, and that ALEC was a driving force behind most of the “tough on crime” legislation passed by Arizona and other states in the 1990’s. These laws, such as truth in sentencing and mandatory minimums laws, sent state prison populations through the roof, and the resulting prison overcrowding crisis proved to be a golden opportunity for private prison operators in Arizona and elsewhere.
Arizona state legislators have been linked to ALEC and for-profit prison corporations for years. A 2006 report by the Institute for Money in State Politics tracks campaign contributions from the private prison corporations to various Arizona state legislators who were ALEC members, and links them to five pieces of legislation during the same period that sought modify Arizona’s sentencing laws, increase the number of private-prison beds in the state, and address overcrowding by requiring the Department of Corrections to transfer prisoners to private prisons.
The Tucson Hearing was the first in a series of statewide hearings on the issue. The next will be held in Kingman, the site of the recent escapes from a privately-operated prison, on November 8th.
For more information on the hearings, background information on private prison companies, and materials on the issue of prison privatization, go to: www.afsc.org/tucson.
These materials, plus photos from Wednesday night’s hearing are on our blog, Cell-Out Arizona at: http://tucsoncitizen.com/cell-out-arizona/2010/10/28/130-crowd-tucson-public-hearing-on-prison-privatization-in-arizona