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Are private prisons good or bad for Arizona?

FILE - In this July 23, 2014, file photo, a fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz.(AP Photo/File)

PHOENIX — The state of Arizona is now taking bids for another 2,000 prison beds, allowing the state’s prison population to get closer to a 45,000 inmate capacity — it’s at over 42,000 now.

With the state’s capacity close to being reached, the question must be asked: Are private prisons good or bad for Arizona?

“They are not good, [well] at least they are not providing the things that they have promised to the state of Arizona,” Caroline Isaacs with the American Friends Service Committee said.

“There’s no evidence that they’re saving us money, there’s no evidence that they are performing their duties, and rehabilitating people and making our communities safer,” Isaacs said.

Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform with the Reason Foundation, said private prisons are neither good nor bad, they are a tool.

The Reason Foundation has received contributions from the private prison industry.

“Basically governments hire the private prison companies to replicate what is the public sector,” Gilroy said. “Operate a prison just like we do, just do it at a lower cost.”

But the profit motive, Isaacs said, is fundamentally at odds with what most of believe is the purpose of corrections — correcting behavior.

“Taking folks from a life of crime and making them into law-abiding citizens, reducing recividism, reducing future crime, and preventing more victims from happening,” Isaacs said is what the Department of Corrections is supposed to be doing. “Unfortunately their bottom line is enhanced by people coming back.”

That means recidivism is good for business, she said.

However, government run prisons have economic incentives just like private prisons.

“The argument of economic incentives is one that I think that you flip on its head by literally changing the incentive in the contract,” Gilroy said. “Instead of making contracts dependent on how many people are in beds, how many people are we not bringing back to fill those beds.”

Private prisons aren’t the problem, said Gilroy. The real question is how can we get better results out of our prison system overall, specifically with recidivism.

This could present an opportunity for private prisons in the future.

“How can we put the private sector to work in the business of serving the public interest,” Gilroy suggests, “with regard to successfully reintegrating people and reducing recidivism?”

They both agree that overall we’re putting too many people in prison, and we’re not doing enough while they’re there, to keep them from coming back.

Not building any more prisons, is a good first step, Isaacs suggests.

Unfortunately for the 2,000 new prison beds seemingly imminent for Arizona, Isaacs said the public has no vote.

“No, no the public does not get a say in this at all, except for not electing these guys that keep building prisons,” Isaacs said.

“But other than if all of those people call their representatives and say ‘don’t you dare fund this,’ there’s no vote on this.”

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