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Do Private Prisons Work? Arizona Riots Raise Doubts

Critics cite cost-cutting and poor training

DURING the first riot, inmates ransacked the kitchen and set fire to their bedding. In the second, a few weeks later, they armed themselves with rocks, posts, and pipes. Guards were injured.

Prison officials blamed the outbursts on start-up problems typical of all new corrections facilities. But Eloy Detention Center is not a typical facility.

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Open just five months, Eloy is a privately run prison, one of several cropping up across the nation as states try to cope with burgeoning inmate populations. The riots in October and November have raised serious questions about the wisdom of placing criminal-justice administration in private hands.

Proponents of private prisons argue that they can be run more cheaply and efficiently than public facilities are. Critics counter that the prisons are prone to cost cutting that results in dangerous and unsanitary conditions for inmates and guards.

``It's not easy to make a profit in that business, so they've got to cut corners any way they can,'' says Dennis Palumbo, a criminal-justice professor at Arizona State University.

Mr. Palumbo says private prisons may well cost more in the long run, not only in terms of taxpayer money, but also in the health and safety of prison staff and other law enforcement officers. Eloy called in local, state, and federal agencies during the riots.

Eloy Detention Center, a 1,000-bed, medium-security facility, sits on the scrub-desert floor of central Arizona. Run by Concept Inc., a Louisville, Ky.-based company, for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Eloy was designed to hold criminal aliens during deportation proceedings. It currently houses 600 inmates.

Concept Inc., with six minimum- and medium-security facilities, is one of a handful of private companies running prisons. The largest and most established firm, Corrections Corporation of America, has about 20 facilities in seven states.

Eloy officials say inmates were angry over not enough ``Hispanic-type'' meals, bad Spanish-language TV reception, and the facility's no-smoking policy. Delays in deportation hearings also contribute to inmate unrest, they add.

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But several current and former staffers say the riots were in part caused by cost-cutting measures that led to shortages of food, soap, toilet paper, and other essentials. They say corrections officers are young, poorly paid, and inadequately trained.

``My life is worth more than $5.42 an hour,'' says former guard Erika Martinez, 19, citing the salary she received before quitting in August, a month after the prison opened.

Eloy Warden J. Blanchard Hopkins defends the salary and training of his staff as adequate, although both are less than what the state of Arizona, the federal government, and the Corrections Corporation of America provide. Mr. Hopkins explains that about 50 of his officers currently make $5.87 an hour, and another 120 officers, who have been on the job more than three months or who have some college, military service, or law-enforcement background, make $8.46 an hour.

State and federal prison systems, as well as the Corrections Corporation of America, all have starting salaries of roughly $9 an hour. State and federal prisons in Arizona also require applicants to be at least 21 or to have at least 3-1/2 years experience in the work force.

Hopkins said he plans to raise salaries by about 40 cents an hour on Jan. 1, partly to compete with the new Corrections Corporation prison in nearby Florence, Ariz., which has hired away many of his staffers since it opened in October. Although Hopkins has had a 37 percent turnover rate since July, he and others in Eloy insist the facility serves as an important source of first jobs for young people in a depressed area. Some guards are just out of high school.

The federal government reimburses Concept Inc. $46 a day per inmate, Hopkins says, compared with a cost per inmate within the federal prison system of about $57 a day.

The state, federal government, and Corrections Corporation of America require four to seven weeks of training. Recruits at Eloy get two weeks of class and one week of on-the-job training.

But Greg Bogdan, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, says it is ``not fair'' to compare what the state and federal governments require with what private prisons require.

``We set minimum standards based on what we feel we need to get an adequate service,'' Mr. Bogdan says, adding that ``cost is one of the most important factors we consider.''

Hopkins also says officers at the state prisons deserve more pay, because they have to deal with hard-core criminals.

As for supply problems, Hopkins and Bill Cull, president of Concept Inc., concede they had had some shortages, but they attribute them more to start-up problems than to cost-cutting.

Cull says the disturbances at Eloy have caused heightened scrutiny of his company and his industry. For that reason, he says, he has delayed plans to increase the population from its current level of 600 to capacity until he can be sure the staff, procedures, and supply lines are in place.

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