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Know the West

How crowded are private prisons in the West?

A riot in Arizona puts the spotlight on for-profit incarceration.


Between July 1 and July 4, a series of disturbances erupted between inmates at a private prison near Kingman, Arizona, which holds about 3,600 inmates. Guards intervened, but a full-scale riot ensued. Inmates trashed housing units and 96 members of the Arizona Department of Corrections’ special tactical-support unit were called in to help quell the unrest. Carrying rifles, tear-gas, and batons, the state agents took several hours to suppress the riot, which forced the temporary relocation of more than 1,000 inmates.

To many, the fact that such a riot happened in Arizona was no surprise. The state has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country and increasingly is leaning on private prisons to house all those inmates. That trend is echoed across the West, where prison populations have ballooned over the past two decades, overwhelming detention facilities and leading state governments to contract out prison operations to private companies.

While the growth in detention rates has leveled off in recent years, the incarceration rates for private prisons continues to climb.
Prison Policy Initiative
The riot is not the first time Kingman has had problems. The prison is operated by Utah-based Management & Training Corp., which operates prisons in four western states, and has had pervasive safety problems since its opening in 2004. Those issues, on top of the recent riots, raise questions about Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s push to spend an additional $70 million a year to house more inmates in private prisons — and the industry-funded lobbying supporting that effort.

While the total prison population in the U.S. grew 16 percent between 2000 and 2011, the number of inmates housed in for-profit prisons grew 106 percent. Western states have some of the highest rates of private prison incarceration. In Arizona, it’s 16 percent, while in Montana and Idaho, it’s over 30 percent. In New Mexico, Gary Johnson’s run for governor in 1994 included a pledge to privatize every prison in the state. Today over 43 percent of the state’s prisoners are in privately run facilities.

The problem, says Caroline Isaacs, with the American Friends Service Committee, an advocacy group, is the business model of incarceration. Companies promise to save a state money, but they also need to make a profit. To do that, they “need to cut corners,” usually in staffing, she says. A 2012 report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, found that on average, maximum annual salaries for private prison employees are $14,901 less than their state-employed counterparts and 58 hours less in training. Low pay means private facilities often have high turnover and inexperienced staff.

Isaacs pointed to the previous incidents at Kingman as proof: In January, an inmate serving a five-year sentence for theft and possession of drug paraphernalia died at a hospital after being badly beaten by a fellow prisoner. His family is seeking $7.5 million from the state and Management & Training Corp. In 2010, three inmates escaped Kingman and went on a violent crime spree that included the murder of an Oklahoma couple vacationing in New Mexico. A subsequent report found that 80 percent of the prison staff were new or newly promoted. Issa Arnita, a spokesperson for the company noted that the 2010 incident prompted “significant security improvements” at Kingman, including installing a one-mile long second perimeter fence, 1,400 feet of additional razor wire, and a half-mile road to keep all unofficial vehicles farther from the prison. Patrols were also increased, she added, and prison staff received additional training.

But Kingman is not the only private facility that has run into safety problems. In Idaho, where detention in private prisons increased by over 450 percent between 1999 and 2010, a facility run by the Corrections Corporation of America was accused of being run as a “gladiator school” in 2010. Footage from the facility showed guards standing by as one inmate beat another into a coma.

Arizona has the sixth highest incarceration rate in the country, with over 41,000 people currently behind bars. For comparison, the state of Washington, which has roughly the same population as Arizona, incarcerates less than half as many people. David Wells, the research director of the Grand Canyon Institute, a centrist think-tank, blames Arizona’s draconian “Truth in Sentencing” laws, which require nonviolent offenders, regardless of risk, to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence behind bars, even though no correlation exists between incarcerating more people and decreased recidivism (the rate at which prisoners relapse into criminal behavior after their release). 

Arizona's incarceration rate has grown 52 percent over the last 10 years. The state now has one of the highest detention rates in the country
Prison Policy Initiative

Meanwhile, swelling prison populations in Arizona mean the state is scrambling to house all these inmates as economically as possible. “They’re trying do it on the cheap,” Wells says, noting that the state has almost no oversight or clear performance standards for its private prisons.  

He added that only a small fraction of Arizona’s prisoners are enrolled in drug treatment programs, even though a large number suffer substance abuse problems. That means inmates are often no better off when they’re released, increasing the likelihood they’ll end up back in jail. The result has been the opposite of cheap: An August 2013 analysis from the Tucson Citizen shows that the rates paid by Arizona per inmate at private prison facilities have increased by an average of 14 percent since 2008.  Arizona now spends 40 percent more on corrections than on higher education, while Oregon spends twice as much.

And cost isn’t the only issue. Even Arizona’s notoriously tough law enforcement official, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, has criticized the governor’s plan to expand private prisons, saying it forces the state to hand over inmate rehabilitation to companies who make a profit by keeping prisoners in custody for longer.

“When you are talking about private industry, no matter what it is, whether it’s a prison or selling milk, you are there to make a profit,” Arpaio told the Arizona Republic. “I’m sure (private-prison operators) are happy and are ‘more the merrier’ when more inmates come into their facilities. ... I would be happy if no one came back to jail, but I don't think a private prison would be happy if no one came back.”

The state of Arizona has signed contracts guaranteeing 100-percent occupancy in three of its privately operated facilities, one of which is leased to the state by Management & Training Corporation. (Kingman has a 97-percent bed guarantee clause.) “They essentially lock the state into funneling more people into prisons,” Wells says. Colorado has occupancy guarantees in its prison contracts too, though its prison population has declined in the last decade. That decrease prompted the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which operates three private prisons in the state to negotiate a bed guarantee provision in Colorado’s 2013 state budget. The deal required Colorado to keep at least 3,300 prisoners in its three CCA facilities.

Leonard Gilroy, the director of government reform at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank, says those contracts actually serve an important purpose by ensuring a prison will be adequately staffed with the right level of services.

As a region, the West has the second highest incarceration rate in the country.
Prison Policy Initiative
But Isaacs says the for-profit model keeps people locked up and came about as a result of extreme right-wing agendas. Back in the 1990s, when “tough on crime” laws were being rolled out by state governments, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an organization that promotes conservative legislation, pushed “Truth in Sentencing” laws (designed to abolish or curb parole so that convicts serve the period they were sentenced to) as models for states to adopt. Leading that push at ALEC was the CCA, the largest owner of for-profit prisons and immigration detention facilities in the United States.

Arizona has six private prisons and 10 state run prisons, while nationwide, the number has grown from five in 1990 with 2,000 beds to 130, with 157,000 beds. In the coming decade, that number will likely hit 360,000. Meanwhile private prisons bring in over $3 billion in annual revenue.

Gilroy thinks the private sector is actually better positioned than the state to reform Arizona’s bloated prison system. Contracts could be tied to lowering the amount of people who end up back in prison instead of to occupancy rates, he says. Still, no matter how they’re managed, we shouldn’t expect things to run perfectly, he says. “They’re not utopias,” says Gilroy. “Bad things can happen in even a well-run prison.” 

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.