Arizona

You know you’re in trouble when “The Daily Show” sends a “fake correspondent” to your state capitol. Perhaps it was inevitable – who could resist the irony of a state literally selling its capitol to the highest bidder?

The comedy in the footage of the aforementioned correspondent standing on Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s desk to test the quality of the drop ceiling in her office was eclipsed only by the tragedy of Rep. Linda Lopez’s complete inability to answer the question that should have been first on the mind of every elected official in Arizona: “After you sell these buildings and have to pay rent on them, how will you balance the budget next year?”

But the “Daily Show” segment was only the beginning. What’s got the cable “fake news” programs and incredulous audiences worldwide rolling in the aisles now is even more far-fetched: Arizona’s gonna privatize death row. State leaders want to give out lucrative, long-term contracts to private, for-profit corporations to run entire state prison complexes, essentially putting rent-a-cops in charge of women inmates, sex offenders and supermax lockdown units. Brilliant! How come nobody ever thought of this before?

Because it’s a terrible idea. In 30-plus years of America’s experiment with prison privatization, never has a private company run entire state prison complexes with multiple security levels. Only one, Corrections Corporation of America, manages high-security prisoners, and only in very small numbers. Even Tennessee, home of CCA, wisely passed on the company’s offer to run the whole state system.

Private prison companies prefer to cherry-pick the prisoners that are already cheapest to house – low-security with no medical, disciplinary or mental health problems. That way, they can skimp on paying or training their staff and make a nice tidy profit.

So why would any of these corporations even think of putting up $100 million to get some crumbling old prison buildings and contracts to manage prisoners from minimum to death row? Because their campaign contributions and armies of lobbyists have convinced Arizona lawmakers to sweeten the deal. The bill actually requires the state to split the savings generated through privatization 50/50 with the private operator. That’s right – we have to give them half the money back.

But wait! There’s more! The deal allows the prison companies to raise their per-diem rate (the amount the state pays them per prisoner, per day) every year for the length of the contract. With no upper limit. And what’s a measly $100 million compared to the combined guaranteed income of 20-year lease payments and those sweet per diems over the length of the contracts?

Now, a story like that is a comedy gold mine! The New York Times, first nationally to report on the story, attempted to hide its smirk behind reassuring quotes from Rep. John Kavanagh, a backer of the proposal who just happens to be chair of Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which happens to oversee the Department of Administration, which will be managing the contracts.

But there was no restraining Stephen Colbert, who took the Twainian opportunity to take this ridiculous idea to its most extreme conclusion: Let’s just privatize the entire criminal justice system and pay cops a commission for every arrest. Surely the profit motive will result in more efficient “justice.” How could there be anything wrong with the idea of profiting from depriving other human beings of their freedom? Ha! Ha!

And now the joke is going global. On November 23, the Guardian UK featured a story whose incredulous author referred to the Arizona proposals as “bizarre” and “kooky.” Resisting the urge to outright mock us, Mr. Abramsky did, however, soberly note that the joke is really on the people of Arizona. Citing the dismal track records of abuse, escapes and riots that have plagued the private prison industry for its entire existence, he warned that this “wacky” scheme could have dire consequences.

So, laugh it up, everybody. Arizona taxpayers appear only too happy to foot the bill for your amusement. And be sure to tune in for the next installment, chronicling a state in even deeper debt, on the hook for 20-year contract obligations it can’t afford, fending off lawsuits over shoddy prison medical care and prisoner abuse scandals and frantically searching for the next brilliant short-term scheme to get us out of this mess.