Sun, July 21

State gets green light on prison bid

PHOENIX -- A judge refused Friday to block the state from awarding a contract to a private company to incarcerate 5,000 state prisoners.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson did not address the contention by the American Friends Service Committee that a state law dating back more than 20 years requires the Department of Corrections to conduct regular studies comparing the cost, safety and other factors between private and state-run prisons. No such study has ever been completed, though one is now underway.

But Anderson said none of that gives the Quaker group the right to challenge any directive by lawmakers to the corrections department to award a contract.

Caroline Isaacs, the organization's program director, said no decision has been made whether to appeal.

Isaacs pointed out that the court, in concluding the group lacks standing to sue, never addressed "the substantive issues they raised about the failures of for-profit prisons in Arizona.'

The committee has said there is ample evidence that private prisons are a bad idea, citing last year's escape of three violent inmates from a facility in Kingman, with one of the fugitives charged with killing a couple in New Mexico before all were recaptured. An investigation found that facility, run by Management and Training Corp., was plagued with problems, including a perimeter alarm system that malfunctioned so often that guards ignored it.

Isaacs said even if there is no legal appeal, the group will continue to try to influence "the court of public opinion' to bring an end to privately run prisons in the state.

Arizona already houses about 6,500 of its approximately 40,000 inmates in private prisons.

The 1987 law requires the Department of Corrections to look at the job contractors are doing every two years, weighing everything from the programs and services offered to inmates to food service and security.

Two of the four finalists bidding for that new 5,000-bed facility already have contracts with the state.

Attorney Vince Rabago argued that the Department of Corrections needs the study to compare what bidders for the new contract are offering. And he said that his clients, as taxpayers, are entitled to intercede to make sure their money is not wasted.

Anderson, however, said nothing in that 1987 law gives individuals the right to sue for failing to comply. He said the statute only creates a duty of the Department of Corrections to prepare -- and a legislative right to receive -- a specific report.

Beyond that, he said that the law already offers sufficient safeguards, even without a study.

He pointed out that lawmakers directed that any contracts be awarded only to a company that shows it can "maintain effective custody and control over inmates in an environment that is safe, secure and humane.' And Anderson said there is no blank check.

"The Legislature has admonished (the) Department of Corrections that it shall not accept a proposal unless it offers cost savings to the state based upon the standard cost comparison model for privatization established by the director,' the judge wrote, quoting from the law.

Isaacs said her group will issue its own "shadow report' once the state releases its own study, one she said will provide a true comparison of the quality of state-run and private prisons.