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Fri, Dec. 06

State: Arizona weighs decision on new private prisons

PHOENIX - Arizona has concluded public hearings on plans to award contracts to add thousands of privately operated prison beds at several locations around the state, including two proposed by a company that operates a prison where a 2010 escape produced a bloody aftermath.

Corrections Department officials weighing the competing proposals heard extensive testimony from community leaders and others supporting the various companies' proposals for the jobs that the facilities would provide.

But concerns also have been voiced about expanding the state's reliance on private prisons with the plan to add 5,000 minimum- and medium-security beds authorized by legislators in 2009.

And relatives of an Oklahoma couple killed in New Mexico after three inmates escaped from a privately operated state prison in Kingman said Arizona shouldn't award another contract to the operator.

That company, Centerville, Utah,-based Management and Training Corp., is one of the four finalists in the current competition. MTC proposed sites in Yuma and Coolidge.

The other finalists are Nashville, Tenn.,-based Corrections Corp. of America for an Eloy site; the GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., for sites in Yuma and Goodyear; and LaSalle Corrections of Rushton, La., and Dripping Springs, Texas, for a Winslow site.

A decision on awarding contracts won't be made until at least mid-September

Corrections Department officials declined comment Friday on the hearings held in the five communities proposed as sites. They cited confidentiality of the state's procurement process.

Some of the sites received ringing endorsements from residents and civic leaders who said building new prisons in their communities would provide economic boosts.

"It would help people that can't find work right now. It would make a dent," Coolidge Mayor Thomas Shope said of the MTC proposal. "If we want to grow as a community, we need people to find work."

In contrast, some residents and elected officials in the southwestern portion of the Phoenix metro area oppose GEO Group's proposal to build a prison next to the existing Perryville state prison in Goodyear.

Then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt's selection of the Perryville site for a state prison in 1978 drew strong opposition at the time from residents and legislators, and state Sen. John Nelson said Friday that many residents oppose putting another prison there now.

"They don't want any more," said Nelson, R-Litchfield Park. "They've felt they've not been treated fairly, that the prison should just stop where it's at, and that they can put those beds in other areas."

Consideration of the Goodyear site breaks a promise to residents that the Perryville prison wouldn't be expanded, Nelson said.

The escape from the Kingman prison is another point of controversy.

Two of the three inmates who escaped from the MTC-operated facility in Mohave County a year ago face charges in New Mexico of killing Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla. The couple was accosted at an Interstate 40 rest area and killed for their vehicle, authorities have said.

Arizona officials have said the Kingman prison was plagued with security flaws related to fencing, patrols and monitoring, and several relatives of Gary Haas traveled to Arizona and spoke at two of the hearings to urge Arizona officials to avoid giving MTC another contract.

Linda Rook, sister of Gary Haas and a nurse from Joplin, Mo., said family members know Arizona needs more prisons and that its residents want jobs.

"But we also want the families to be safe because I think the local people (living near prisons) are probably at risk more than the public at large," Rook said during an interview Thursday before attending the final hearing in Coolidge that evening. "It was just unfortunate that those escapes crossed paths with my family."

Several other Haas family members have filed suits against MTC, the state or both.

MTC did not respond to a request for an interview about the Haas relatives' comments but emailed a statement.

Odie Washington, senior vice president for operations, said the company "has taken responsibility for the escape and for correcting all issues related to this unfortunate incident."

"MTC has operated prisons in Arizona for 17 years and is committed to operating safe and secure facilities," Washington also said.

Broader concerns are being voiced by advocates of alternatives to incarceration and by at least one legislator.

Arizona should stop the plan to build more private prisons until the Department of Corrections completes a detailed analysis comparing public and private prisons that's already required by law, said Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix.

"After prisoners escaped from MTC last July and murdered two people, you promised that a thorough review of security and monitoring of private prisons would be conducted," Campbell wrote to Gov. Jan Brewer. "There are still, however, lingering concerns about the security, training and contract monitoring of the existing private prisons after over a year since innocent victims were murdered by escaped convicts."

Brewer's office did not immediately respond for a request for comment on Campbell's letter, but the Department of Corrections said it has implemented a comprehensive inspection program and was working on the report comparing services provided by public and private prisons. The report is due in January, department Barrett Marson said.

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