Tucson Draws the Line on Prison Privatization

On Tuesday, May 8, Tucson, Arizona, passed a long-overdue resolution banning the privatization of its jails and detention centers.

One more time, with emphasis: A city near the Mexican border in a state that’s home to some of the country’s harshest sentencing guidelines and the fourth-highest rate of incarceration in the US — with privately-run prisons and immigrant detention centers from one corner of the state to the other — is telling companies like GEO Group and CoreCivic that they’re not welcome around here.

“Profit should never be motivation for our justice system,” said Tucson City Councilmember Regina Romero, who spearheaded passage of the resolution.

Our little corner of Arizona has been so traumatized by mass incarceration — with per capita jail admissions almost 50 percent higher than our neighbors in Phoenix — that the Tucson City Council isn’t the first municipal body in these parts to pass such a resolution. That honor goes to Tucson’s counterparts at the Pima County Board of Supervisors, who voted last year for a similar ban against for-profit prison operators.

But while Tucson and Pima County are at the forefront of opposition to the privatization of municipal corrections and detention facilities in the state, we’re certainly not alone.

In August 2017, King County, Washington, passed legislation that prohibits the county from entering into any contracts with private prison companies to house adult or juvenile detainees. Just last month, the Indianapolis City-County Council approved an ordinance that proactively restricts the privatization of the city’s new jail and criminal justice center once it opens. While opposing the idea that Indianapolis even needed a new jail, prohibiting for-profit operation of the facility is an incremental move in the right direction.

In Mississippi, corrections officials and state legislators are now lamenting their contracts with companies like Management & Training Corporation (MTC), which operates the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF). A recent federal civil rights lawsuit alleges a multitude of violations at EMCF: A man with mental illness on suicide watch hanged himself; prisoners have been routinely beaten by gang members; and ill prisoners resorted to setting fires in their cells to finally get medical attention.

“I think in this state we built too many prisons, and we were over-incarcerating at some point,” Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall told a panel of state lawmakers last month. “Well, the trend has turned.”

MTC, GEO Group, CoreCivic and other corporations will tell you — among other falsehoods — that they cost taxpayers less than publicly run prisons, that they work to rehabilitate prisoners and provide meaningful substance abuse programs, and that you should ignore the fact that their business model is doomed if any of this were true.

Rehabilitative programming and addiction treatment inside private prisons and jails is practically nil, with a few “classes” led by underqualified civilians with dubious credentials. And the costs to taxpayers? Those extend far beyond the per diem rate private prison operators charge the state in myriad collateral costs, like low pay in exploited rural communities, high recidivism rates and inadequate medical care for prisoners that results in millions of dollars in damages for malpractice and negligence.

For those of us that are abolitionists, the concept of prisons and jails is foundationally immoral. But insomuch as our government’s present priorities include depriving people of their liberty, it’s immoral to hand this power over to for-profit corporations whose primary allegiance is to their shareholders — not to the people incarcerated, their families or the taxpayers footing the bill.

Tucson and Pima County get it. And if we in red-state, “tough-on-crime” Arizona are motivated to end their reign — along with Seattle and Indianapolis and frustrated lawmakers in Mississippi — companies like CoreCivic, GEO Group and MTC can be assured that it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the country follows.