PHOENIX -- A judge has refused to block the state from awarding new contracts to put inmates in private prisons.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson said members of the Quaker organization who filed suit earlier this week had not shown their interests would be "irreparably harmed' if he refused to issue an emergency order. That made the challengers legally ineligible for immediate relief.
But the ruling does not end the dispute.
Anderson scheduled a hearing for next week when he wants to hear from both the American Friends Service Committee as well as the Department of Corrections. He could at that time, after hearing evidence, then bar the state from proceeding with the additional private prisons.
That presumes, however, it is not too late.
The law directing the Department of Corrections to contract out for 5,000 private prison beds allows the agency to award the bid as early as this Friday. And agency spokesman Barrett Marson would not commit to holding off until after next week's hearing.
About 6,500 of the state's approximately 40,000 inmates already are in private prisons. The lawsuit is based on the contention by the group that privately run prisons are both more costly and less secure than those operated by the state.
What gives the group ammunition is that a 1987 state law requires a study to determine whether private companies can not only do the job at a lower cost but that the private companies meet the same standards on everything from security to food. That law was ignored until Gov. Jan Brewer directed a study be done.
That study, however, will not be completed before the end of the year. The group wants Anderson to preclude new contracts until that happens.
Anderson, however, said he cannot act now -- before the Department of Corrections gets a chance to respond -- absent some showing of irreparable harm.
Carolyn Isaacs, the group's Arizona program manager, said there is such proof.
"Certainly, the taxpayers are harmed by wasting $650 million,' she said.
Isaacs also noted that other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include a couple whose son in locked up in a private prison in Kingman. They allege that guards in that facility have allowed attacks to occur on African-American inmates.
"There is irreparable harm happening daily in these facilities, or at least the potential for it,' Isaacs said.
She also pointed to the review done by the state of the operation of that Kingman facility after three dangerous inmates escaped last year. One of the escapees and an accomplice have been charged in connection with the murder of an Oklahoma couple.
"At any minute, another Kingman (incident) could possibly happen,' Isaacs said.