Tue, July 23

Quakers sue state over private prison contracts

PHOENIX -- A Quaker group filed suit Monday to block the state from awarding any more contracts for private prisons, at least for the time being.

The lawsuit points out the Department of Corrections is supposed to award a contract for 5,000 additional private prison beds as early as the end of the week. Four companies have been chosen as finalists.

But attorney Stacey Scheff, representing the Arizona Friends Service Committee, said a 1987 state law requires that agency to first conduct a study to determine if a private firm can provide at least the same quality as the state at a lower cost. Factors that must be studied range from security and inmate programs to health services and food services.

"They've never done a study, they've admitted they've never done a study,' she said. Only now is the state in the process of completing the first one.

"It will be done in January -- four months after they actually award the contract,' she said.

Scheff is asking Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Arthur Anderson to rule that no new contracts can be awarded until the study is done.

An aide to the judge said late Monday he had not yet had a chance to review the filing. Scheff said she is hoping to make her case to him today.

Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said the state will fight the lawsuit.

"There are deadlines in place for the issuance of this contract,' he said, deadlines that were set by the Legislature. "So is the state supposed to ignore THAT law?'

Scheff, in essence, said yes. She said the general law requiring a study -- a law that goes back more than 20 years -- takes precedence.

"We will argue the Legislature shouldn't be allowed to ignore their own laws, especially laws like this that are designed to protect the people of Arizona,' she said. "And if they did do that deliberately, that's another violation.'

The state has had inmates in private prisons for more than a decade. The latest figures from the Department of Corrections show more than 6,400 inmates in private prisons within the state out of a total inmate population of more than 40,000.

There have always been objections to private prisons, many of them over the issue of whether there were the same safeguards both for the inmates and the public.

That all boiled over last year when three violent criminals escaped from a Kingman facility last year 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 by Management and Training Corp. That included a perimeter alarm system that malfunctioned so often that corrections officers routinely ignored it.

But the report said the state's oversight of that facility also fell short, allowing problems to develop.

Benson said the Brewer administration should be given some credit for even conducting the study in the first place, even if it will not be ready for months. He said no such studies were performed when prior governors gave the go-ahead to put inmates in private facilities.

The failure to first conduct the study is only part of the basis for the lawsuit.

Scheff also is representing Joyce and Oralee Clayton Sr., whose son, Oralee Clayton Jr., is an inmate at that same Kingman facility. Scheff said there have been a series of violent racial conflicts at the prison, with the guards at the private facility not properly trained in how to handle such incidents.

The result, said Scheff, is that the couple is in fear for their son's safety.