A systemic, institutional failure - The Explorer: Editorials

A systemic, institutional failure

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Posted: Monday, August 23, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:10 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Three prisoners broke out of a privately run, for-profit prison in Kingman on July 30. Two were murderers. The third was convicted of attempted murder.

Since their escape, they have been linked to the murder of an elderly couple in New Mexico. The last of the escapees was captured Friday in an Apache County, Ariz., campground with a cache of weapons in his tent.

This chilling story has brought back into focus a question that has been asked many times before: should Arizona rely on private prisons to house violent criminals?

And it makes me wonder what Republican legislators were thinking when they pushed a bill last year to privatize all our state prisons, including those housing death row inmates.

Unfortunately, their hunger for prison privatization can be attributed in large part to the oversized influence the private prison industry exerts on the state Republican Party.

Jan Brewer's deputy chief of staff, Paul Senseman, is a former lobbyist for private prisons, and his wife is currently a lobbyist. Chuck Coughlin, her policy adviser, has a public relations firm that also lobbies for the prisons.

Russell Pearce – yes, the same Russell Pearce who pushed through SB1070 — is the legislative point man for private prisons. He has received the maximum allowable campaign contributions from private prison PACS as well as substantial donations from their lobbyists.

Money and influence, it seems, trump prison security and Arizona's safety with our most powerful Republican politicians.

Details of the Kingman prison break raise serious concerns about private corporations' ability to keep violent criminals safely locked away from the rest of Arizona's citizens.

• A car drove up to the prison perimeter, and a woman threw a wire cutter over the fence. No one was guarding the perimeter. She could have as easily thrown guns, knives or packages of drugs over the fence.

• The prisoners walked through a door that was supposed to be locked but was propped open with a rock. Then they cut through two fences and walked out of the prison. No guards noticed the breech, because the lights on the control panel monitoring the fence were burnt out. And besides, there are so many false alarms at the prison – 89 on the day of the breakout – that the guards stopped paying attention to them.

• The prisoners' disappearance wasn't discovered until hours later. Then the prison officials waited an hour before reporting the break to the local sheriff's office. By that time, the escapees and their accomplice were long gone.

The list of mistakes – tragic mistakes considering the escapees' probable murder of the elderly couple in New Mexico – is too long to be chalked up to human error. This is a case of systemic, institutional failure.

One problem may be, the Kingman facility was designed to house prisoners being held for drug and alcohol offenses, not murders. Originally, those were the kind of inmates intended to be held in private, for-profit prisons. Since then, it has been expanded and holds over 100 lifer/murderers.

Many people believe the private prisons are understaffed with lower paid, less well trained guards than state prisons. It's hard to get solid figures, however, since the state doesn't monitor the private facilities on a regular basis.

You have to question whether a prison run on the profit motive, where a dollar saved is a dollar profit, should be responsible for housing dangerous, violent offenders.

Other states have cut back on private prisons because evidence shows them to be less secure than state prisons, and any savings to the state – if indeed there are savings – are minimal.

Yet our Republican legislature is trying to move the entire prison system into private hands, including prisoners on death row, something no other state has tried.

It's time to step back from the precipice before we put another dangerous criminal into a private prison. Arizona's citizens need to better understand the consequences of this rush to privatization before stories like that of the "Kingman 3" become a regular occurrence.

Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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