Sat, Oct. 19

Suit alleges private prisons not proven safe, effective

Vince Rabago

Vince Rabago

PHOENIX -- A Quaker group asked a judge on Friday to block the state from putting more inmates in private prisons, saying the Department of Corrections has never shown it is safe or even cost effective.

Vince Rabago, representing the American Friends Service Committee, told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson that the law requires the state to make a comparison every two years between the services and safety of state-run facilities and those operated by private companies. But there has never been such a study even though that law has been on the books for more than 20 years.

Without the study, Rabago argued, there is no basis to know whether it makes sense for the state to go ahead with its plans to contract for another 5,000 private prison beds. So he wants Anderson to block that contract from being awarded until the first study, which the Department of Corrections is finally doing this year, is completed.

"The state has an obligation to follow its laws,' Rabago told the judge.

The 1987 law dealing with awarding of contracts for private prisons requires the director of the Department of Corrections to look at the job contractors are doing every two years, considering everything from the programs and services offered to inmates to food service and security. Rabago told Anderson the state needs the study as a baseline to compare to what bidders for the new contract are offering.

Assistant Attorney General Rex Nowlan conceded that the state never had performed the study. But he said that is legally irrelevant, arguing that the Department of Corrections is effectively looking at all those issues.

He also pointed out that same law already prohibits the state from contracting for private prison beds "unless the proposal offers cost savings to this state.'

Anyway, Nowlan questioned how the Quaker group -- or the other plaintiffs who are the parents of an adult inmate in a private prison -- has any right to sue simply because the Department of Corrections has not complied with the law requiring a study. He said the only people who would have a right to complain are the lawmakers who are supposed to get the report.

Rabago disagreed.

"Taxpayers have a right to prevent the illegal expenditure of taxpayer monies,' he told the judge.

Nowlan responded that the Legislature specifically directed the Department of Corrections to contract for another 5,000 beds at privately run prisons. That is on top of the 6,400 inmates already housed in private facilities.

With that direction, Nowlan said, what the agency is doing cannot be called illegal.

Rabago said this is more than a question of a missing report.

"Maybe had the state done its job, maybe had it been doing these studies properly ... maybe we would not be in a position where we would have had Kingman (private prison) escapees murdering innocent people,' he said. "Maybe we wouldn't have riots and unsafe conditions which we know exist.'

That murder reference is to an incident last year when three violent criminals escaped from a private prison run by Management and Training Corp. after an accomplice threw a wire cutter over the fence.

All eventually were recaptured, but not before an Oklahoma couple, kidnapped at a New Mexico rest area, was murdered; several of those involved have been charged in that incident.

A study following that incident found various failures with the operation of the facility, including a perimeter alarm system that malfunctioned so often that corrections officers routinely ignored it.

The study also concluded the state itself had done a poor job of oversight.

State officials have not said when they will finally award the new contract. But Barrett Marson, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said his agency asked all the bidders to extend the expiration date on their offers until Nov. 22 to provide more time to review the proposals.

Anderson gave no indication of when he will rule.

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