What seemed to be a housekeeping issue before Council during its regular meeting last Monday, Feb. 14, opened up a can of worms when three agreements with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) came on deck.
Mayor Byron Jackson abstained from the discussion and approval of the CCA items, as his being a contract employee for CCA for landscaping presented a conflict of interest. Vice-Mayor Frank Acuna oversaw the discussion in his place.
The first of the three items were merely to formalize in writing a verbal agreement with an existing contract between CCA and the Dept. of Public Safety in Hawaii. Though the city had been involved, it had never officially designated in writing or policy the lawful roles of each member in the agreement.
“It creates a separate agreement defining the city’s and CCA’s previous agreement to house the State of Hawaii and Dept. of Public Safety inmates in Eloy,” City Manager Ruth Osuna explained.
The second was a request of Council’s support in a proposal CCA was sending out for a contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections for 5,000 prison beds. Pending the results of that bid, CCA could be building a new facility to accommodate those state inmates, or expanding on an existing one. Eloy is one of several locations CCA would considering siting a new facility, if needed.
The proposal will be submitted today, Feb. 24. The 5,000 beds could be split up into several facilities, and it is uncertain exactly what CCA will opt to do.
“Both out of the respect for the RFP process and for competitive reasons, it’s too early in the process and it’s premature for CCA to discuss what that proposal would entail,” CCA Public Affairs Director Steve Owen later explained.
Before approval of the items last week, two members of the audience addressed Council during the Call to the Public about the agreements with the for-profit correctional company.
Local resident Frank Smith explained that he has been researching private prisons for 15 years. Besides helping to build criminal cases in the past, he’s also become quite knowledgeable about the drain private prisons put on a municipality. For example, he said, prisoners use 150 gallons of water a day, each. Multiply that times 5,000 prisoners, that’s 273 million gallons of water a year in Eloy.
“You’re talking about a tremendous amount of water,” Smith pointed out. “You’ve got problems with water in Arizona, you’ve got the Salt River Project. It’s a consideration you should investigate before you approve this agreement.”
CCA tends to depend on the towns where their prisons are located to supply infrastructure like sewer lines and paving, he went on to say. “Not always, but most of the time. There is a liability here, you can get into trouble.”
Another liability, he added, were escapes from these facilities, such as the one in Kingman last year. According to Smith, the state is being sued $40 million for the Kingman escape.
“An escape that was inevitable given the level of training and turnover of the guards that were there,” he said. “It took them hours to notify the Mojave County Sheriff. After three hours, they didn’t even know who was gone…and it took another hour and an half or so before the EDC was notified who they were.
“You’ve got serious problems here. I think the city should investigate its exposure to liability.”
He cited the pre-Christmas riot in December last year where seven inmates were sent to the hospital as another instance of liability for the city to consider. Especially, he said, in light of the lawsuit being waged against CCA by 18 Hawaiian prisoners who reported serious abuse at the hands of CCA staff at the Saguaro prison.
Costs are another thing he warned the city to be wary about. “You don’t see the numbers that CCA should be giving you. And you don’t get the jobs here. There’s a very high turnover.”
For example in Texas, he said, the state discovered that seven of their private prisons had 90 percent turnover a year. “That’s not correctional officers, you’re talking about fast food workers with badges. That’s tremendous turnover.”
Vice-Mayor Acuna had to cut Smith off at the three-minute mark, and Caroline Isaacs came to the podium. Isaacs is director of the American Friends Service Committee Office in Tucson, which is a national organization associated with the Quaker religion and concentrates its efforts on criminal justice reform. She has been working with AFSCO for 15 years.
She began by announcing to Council about the public hearing on for-profit incarceration that they helped host in Tuscon on Oct. 27, 2010, during which several area community leaders presented their exhaustive research on private prisons.
According to the AFSC’s Web site, many Tucson area government officials were in attendance at last October’s public hearing regarding prison privatization. Correctional representatives from the Arizona Dept. of Corrections, CCA, and the Management and Training Corporation, although invited, were not in attendance,.
Those in attendance were: Phil Lopez (Ariz. State Representative, District 27), Assistance Tucson City Manager Richard Miranda, Richard Elias (Pima County Supervisor, District 5), Steve Kozachik (Tucson City Council, Ward 6), Nancy Young-Wright (Ariz. State Representative, District 26), and former associate editor for the Tucson Citizen, Mark Kimble, moderated by Mari Herraras from Tucson Weekly.
Presenters were Stephen Nathan with the Prison Privatization report International, Susan Maurer with the New Jersey Dept. of Corrections, Victoria Lopez with ACLU Arizona, Joe Glen with the Juvenile Corrections Association, and Jim Sanders with the Real Estate Appraiser in Tucson.
Some of the findings revealed at the meeting were that overall, it costs more to utilize private prisons than state-run institutions, are understaffed and Isaacs gave several examples from over the last year illustrating the safety concerns there are for prisoners.
This past summer, a Hawaiian inmate at Saguaro was strangled by his cellmate while the prison was in lock down in June 2010. That same month, another inmate was stabbed to death at Saguaro by two other inmates who could face the death penalty, and an employee suffered a broken nose and cheekbones and eye socket damage during a 30-inmate brawl over an Xbox game in July.
That’s not to mention the recent lawsuit pending against CCA by 18 of its inmates in December for abuse that went unchecked by the state’s on-site contract monitor.
Isaacs also explained to Council the uncertainty of the prison company’s cost nunbers, according to an audit done by a Hawaiian company for Saguaro.
“CCA chooses to report artificial cost figures derived from a calculation based on a flawed methodology,” she read directly from the audit. “Without clarified guidance by policy makers, the department has no incentive to perform better, and will continue to evade accountability by providing unreliable and inaccurate reporting of operating costs…”
At the end of her three minutes, Isaacs left information for Council to review at their leisure.
Council then turned to the task at hand, which were the three agreements with CCA.
The third agreement was to formalize a verbal contract between the city and CCA about the company’s role in building certain infrastructure to service its three newest prisons.
Councilman Joel Belloc questioned whether the roads around the newest prison, LaPalma, were completed and who was responsible for the upkeep of those roads. CCA representative John Gluch was present, and told Council that the roads were complete and were now in the hands of the city.
“[This agreement] is just to put into writing the timing of the improvements,” Rick Miller said about the final agreement. “It is good to know that they’re going to be anticipating those costs, which, in time, will need to be paid. We’ll need traffic signals and that infrastructure will go in and they will be a participant in their share of that.”
All three agreements were unanimously approved.
“We certainly are very appreciative of the level of support that the city of Eloy has shown us and by extension, the broader Pinal County area, as well as the recognition they’ve given the services that we provide,” Owen later commented, “and the economic impact we have with our facilities. We look forward to our long term relationship withe community continuing.”