A Missed Chance for Reform

For-profit prisons are afraid. The industry has faced plenty of challenges in recent years, including a commitment from the White House not to renew any outstanding federal contracts with private corrections providers and similar bans from states like California and Nevada. But in Arizona, they faced an entirely new kind of challenge, and fought desperately to stave it off.

Two new bills were introduced to the Arizona state legislature this February, the Private Prison Contract Reform Act and the Private Prison Performance Act. The former would make it possible for reform-minded startups to compete with the profit-driven giants of the corrections industry. Simply put, currently only a select few companies can even compete for the contracts upon which the private prison industry relies. The latter bill is a complete overhaul of how private prisons work in Arizona. It obligates providers to improve outcomes for inmates by increasing metrics like job placement rates and decreasing metrics like return to prison rates. Providers that improve outcomes would be incentivized with bonus payments, and providers that perform worse than historic norms would be penalized financially. This isn’t the traditional payment structure for private corrections providers, where contracts pay out a flat rate based on capacity. It’s a payment structure that quite literally requires providers to improve the lives of inmates and the safety of local communities if they hope to remain financially viable.

New polling data suggest that Arizonans are broadly supportive of reforms that focus on improving inmate outcomes—and extremely skeptical of the status quo. 67 percent of voters in Arizona think that prisons should be paid based on their ability to rehabilitate inmates. More than half of voters of both parties support financial penalties for prisons whose inmates go on to commit more crimes and bonuses for prisons whose prisoners succeed after release. Meanwhile, only 26 percent of voters viewed for-profit prisons favorably. Yet, that figure more than doubled to 59 percent support when voters were asked whether paying prisons based on outcomes would increase their support for for-profit prisons. Outcome-based policies are the future of American corrections—now, policymakers and prison corporations need to catch up to the public’s expectations.

Two of America’s largest for-profit corrections companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic, currently operate in the state of Arizona. Because they rely on capacity-based contracts and not performance-based ones, the Private Prison Performance Act represented an enormous threat to their control over corrections in Arizona. It would have forced them to entirely change the way they run prisons from the ground up, while opening the door to market competition from agile, reform-minded nonprofits like Social Purpose Corrections, who already approach corrections with a focus on improving outcomes. It’s no surprise, then, that for-profit providers lobbied so fiercely in opposition to the proposed reform acts and killed the measures.

What is not surprising, but disappointing, is the fact that some Arizona legislators are comfortable with the status quo. The Private Prison Contract Reform and Performance Acts offered an opportunity for Arizona to lead the nation into the future of corrections administration and take the bold first step toward reimagining our outcomes for Arizona’s prisons. These are common-sense policies that Arizonans from all political perspectives can agree on. Good policy requires debate and engagement by all parties. But because of the staunch opposition from for-profit providers, state representatives were persuaded to not even debate the bill in committee. 

This was a desperate bid on the part of massive corrections companies to preserve the status quo of prisons in Arizona, but it comes at a price that neither for-profit corrections nor legislators can afford. Poll results show that voters are split on whether to reform private prisons or shut them down and turn over control to the state. Efforts to curb accountability and transparency only further jeopardize the future of private corrections.  At the end of the day, no matter how much private companies commit to lobbying for the status quo, lawmakers should be listening to their constituents, the voting public. Arizonans demand a better path forward. 

Eli Oaks is a research fellow at Social Purpose Corrections and an undergraduate candidate for a B.A. in English at Dartmouth College.