Jan 042012

By Teri Walker–

By and large, Arizona’s privately run prisons are offering comparable services at comparable costs to prisons run by the state, according to a Department of Corrections (DOC) report issued last week.

In the first review of its kind, the DOC found that four of the state’s six private prisons evaluated offer a comparable quality of service to that provided by a state-run prison unit, and only one of the state’s private prisons offered less services than a state-run facility for roughly the same cost.

In spite of a law being on the books for more than a decade requiring the DOC to issue a biennial comparison of private vs. public prison operations, the 2011 report is the first of its kind issued by the department.

DOC Director Charles Ryan said in his report, which was submitted to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, that when he came to office in 2009 he began a systemic review of the DOC’s operational and administrative practices, and found that while annual audit evaluation and inspection compliance data for both contracted private prisons and state-run prisons had been reported since 1998, the formal, comprehensive biennial report comparing private and public provision of services had not been submitted to the budget committee since the law requiring it was enacted.

Ryan said that based on this finding, he began plans to develop the biennial comparison and produce the required report.

“The biennial comparison is based on the professional correctional standards that the department has codified in written policies and procedures, and has established in private prison contracts,” said Ryan. “In order to measure performance against these correctional standards it was necessary for me to develop the tools needed to capture sufficient data to measure and compare these standards, including creating a new prison operations inspection program, (and) an annual audit process that could be used both to ensure operational compliance, and to collect and measure data for a comparison of private state-run prison services.”

With the comparison tools established, Ryan undertook evaluating private vs. state-run facilities in nine areas, including security, inmate management and control, inmate programs and services, facility safety and sanitation, administration, food service, personnel practices and training, inmate health services and inmate discipline.

In the comparison report, Ryan points out the difficulty in conducting an apples-to-apples comparison of facilities because of the many differences in operations and cost factors between a state and private-run facility, beginning with the number of prisoners served. In fiscal year 2011, state-run prisons housed 85 percent of Arizona prisoners, with an average daily population of 34,155, while private prisons housed the remaining 15 percent, or 6,071 prisoners. As of Oct. 31, the department also had jurisdiction over 5,822 offenders on community supervision (inmates who have been paroled or statutorily released from prison before their entire sentence was served).

“This disparity in population, and the requirements and constraints imposed through statute and individual private prison contracts have created significant differences in operational models between private and state-run prison units,” said Ryan.

In considering costs, private vs. state cost comparisons are inherently complex due to the many differences in operating requirements, said Ryan, such as inmate custody level and population requirements, medical, mental health and dental care limitations, level of overcrowding, age of infrastructure, programming requirements, and land and building financing and cost.

“For example, when considering prison capital construction costs, the depreciation amount for existing state prison buildings was $1.41 per inmate per day compared to an average of $12 per inmate per day for private prison building and financing costs…A perfect cost comparison is impossible to achieve,” said Ryan.

There are 10 state-run facilities in Arizona and six private prison units. Private prisons are located in Phoenix, Florence, Kingman and Marana. The DOC has a 2012 appropriated budget of $998,837,700, and 10,000 employees to oversee the public and private prison operations.

While private prisons house and care for the inmates in their facilities, there are certain functions that contractors are not allowed to undertake. By law, the DOC must calculate inmate release dates, calculate and award sentence credits, approve the type of work inmates may perform, and the wages or sentence credits which may be given to inmates in work programs, grant, deny or revoke sentencing credits, place an inmate under less or more restrictive custody, and take any disciplinary actions.

The DOC built adjustments into its cost comparisons to provide greater accuracy, including medical cost, inmate management functions and depreciation adjustments.

With these adjustments, the DOC found that the average minimum daily cost of housing a prisoner in 2010 in four private prisons, including Phoenix West, Florence West, Kingman Cerbat Unit and Marana, was $46.56. The daily cost of housing in four comparable state-run units was $46.59.

The average daily rate in 2010 of housing prisoners in private facilities in the Central Arizona Correctional Facility in Florence and Kingman Hualapai Unit was higher than comparable state units in Florence, at $53.01 vs. $48.42. The Winslow state prison adjusted daily per capita rate was $56.92.

Overall, state prison costs have gone down slightly in the past few years. The daily cost to house a minimum-security inmate dropped from $46.65 in 2008 to $46.59 in 2010. Medium security inmate daily costs fell from $51.28 in 2008 to $48.42 in 2010.

The same can be said of private prison costs. In 2008, it cost $46.98 to house an inmate in a minimum-security private facility, while the cost was $46.56 in 2010. A medium security inmate held under private contract cost an average of $58.44 per day in 2008 and $53.02 in 2010.

When determining the level of service state-run vs. privately run facilities offer, the DOC considered such security issues as the number of cell phones or drugs confiscated, how many inmates escaped from a work detail or release center, as well as how many escaped a secure facility. The department also reviewed the number of incidents where prison staff had to use force with inmates, how often prison keys were missing or unaccounted for, and how often weapons were confiscated.

In the area of inmate management and control, the DOC studied the number of inmates who attempted escape, assaults and fights among inmates, “unauthorized grouping” of inmates, incidents of inmates engaging in unauthorized activity or causing disturbances, assaults on staff and the number of unauthorized stoppages of work caused by inmates.

Facilities weren’t just reviewed regarding what went wrong, but also regarding what has gone right. The DOC looked at inmate programs and services offered such as career and technical education programs, literacy education, self-improvement programs, substance abuse and sex offender treatment, GED achievement and the number of inmates working in the Prison Work Incentive Pay Program.

Facilities were scored for the number of staff, inmate and visitor injuries, vacancy and turnover rates, medical and mental health services, and grievances filed.

The detailed comparison of prisons evaluated can be viewed at azcorrections.gov, using the search term “biennial comparison.”