This year, Arizonans have shown beyond any doubt that they prioritize education and that they want state leaders to do the same. But a Department of Corrections proposal approved by a legislative committee last week suggests that Republicans’ priorities are still all wrong.
Arizona now plans to purchase the private prison in Kingman from GEO Group, the company that took the facility over after inmate riots last summer. Arizona plans to pay $137.4 million, refinance the debt at a much lower interest rate, and then continue to contract with GEO Group to operate the prison. According to the DOC, paying off the prison will cost taxpayers $77.5 million less if Arizona holds the debt than if GEO Group continues to. That is a big win for Arizona taxpayers, who are burdened by a bloated prison system.
But the Kingman plan, proposed by a Republican administration and approved by a majority-Republican oversight committee, also poses a serious question: are private prisons actually more expensive than public prisons?
Until Republican legislators in 2012 outlawed cost comparisons, data consistently demonstrate that, yes, private prisons are more expensive than public prisons. In 2010, the Department of Corrections reported that the daily per capita cost of prisoners in private prisons was almost 10 percent higher than for those in state prisons. It seems like Republican legislators did not like the truth, so they made up their own. And the chief justification for spending millions of dollars every year on private prisons has continued to be that they save Arizona money.
Despite appearing to acknowledge that public prisons are more cost-effective, however, the Kingman plan is still bad for Arizona tax payers; and for Arizona’s corrections officers. Because Gov. Ducey intends to use more than $2 million of the yearly savings—that is, taxpayer money—to subsidize the salaries of GEO Group’s prison guards.
That bears repeating: Gov. Ducey wants to use public, taxpayer dollars to increase the salaries of private prison guards—guards employed by a multi-billion dollar company that made nearly $140 million in profits last year. Public corrections officers, meanwhile, have gone without pay raises for nine years. Democrats tried to remove the salary subsidies from the Kingman plan, but Republican legislators were insistent on funneling $2 million of public money to GEO Group.
The Kingman plan shows the wrong priorities for Arizona. Maybe that has something to do with the $55,000 that GEO Group gave to Gov. Ducey’s 2014 campaign. Maybe it doesn’t. But either way, taxpayer money should not go to line the pockets of large, out-of-state companies.
And Republican leaders in Arizona should get back to championing the causes Arizonans prioritize. Arizonans have demanded education, not incarceration. House Democrats have listened, and share your priorities.