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Report Faults Private Prison Company for Deadly Arizona Prison Break

by Matt Clarke

On August 19, 2010, the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) issued a report concerning the July 30 escape of three prisoners from a privately-operated prison in Kingman, Arizona. The report was highly critical of Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the for-profit firm that runs the Kingman facility.

On the same day the ADC report was released, the last of the three escapees was captured along with an accomplice. Unfortunately, the escapees left behind a deadly trail of crime that included hijacking 18-wheelers, kidnapping, two murders, aggravated assaults and a shootout with police.

The escape from the MTC-operated facility also temporarily suspended Arizona’s efforts to privatize 5,000 more prison beds in the state. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.42].

John Charles McCluskey, 45, was a year into a 15-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder when he convinced his cousin and fiancée, Casslyn Mae Welch, 44, to aid in the escape. Welch approached the prison unnoticed and tossed a pair of bolt cutters over the perimeter fence. McClusky and two other prisoners – Tracy Allen Province, who had served seven years of a life sentence for murder and robbery, and Daniel Renwick, who had served eight years for murder – used the bolt cutters to make a hole in the fence, then tied back the fencing with a dog leash.

Welch had parked a car with weapons, cash and false identification nearby, but the escapees became disoriented and split up to look for the vehicle. Renwick found the car first and drove off, leaving the others to fend for themselves. Taking advantage of McClusky and Welch’s prior experience as big-rig truck drivers, McClusky, Welch and Province hijacked the first of two tractor-trailers used to flee the area. Ironically, Renwick, who had taken all of the group’s supplies, was the first to be caught. He was arrested two days later in Rifle, Colorado following a brief shootout with police.

Forensic evidence later linked the other escapees to the murder of an Oklahoma couple, Gary and Linda Haas, whose charred remains were found in their burned-out camper in eastern New Mexico. Soon thereafter, Province was spotted in a Wyoming church on August 8, 2010 and taken into custody without resistance.

McClusky and Welch remained on the lam until August 19, when a forest ranger went to investigate an unattended campfire in Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The ranger spoke briefly with a nervous McClusky, then left and called in a SWAT team, which swarmed the campground when McClusky was in a sleeping bag outside a tent.
Both McClusky and Welch surrendered without firing a shot, though both expressed a desire to shoot it out had they been able to get to their weapons. McClusky also said he wished he had killed the ranger.

Federal and state charges of murder, carjacking, kidnapping, armed robbery, aggravated assault and conspiracy have since been filed against McClusky, Welch and Province. They may face the death penalty. McClusky’s mother, Claudia Washburn, 68, was prosecuted for helping her son by sending him money after he escaped; she pleaded guilty and was sentenced in January 2011 to seven months in prison.

The dramatic course of the deadly crime spree kept the escape in the news for weeks. The resulting public attention demanded an investigation into how the escape happened and whether it could have been prevented. The ADC was quick to investigate, largely placing the blame on the poor quality of MTC’s operations at the Kingman prison.

ADC Director Charles L. Ryan ordered all prisoners with life sentences, murder convictions, a history of escapes or more than 20 years left on their sentences removed from Kingman until the MTC-run prison was brought into compliance with ADC guidelines. This resulted in the transfer of 148 prisoners. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, seeking political cover, said the classification system that allowed those prisoners to be assigned to medium security at Kingman was in place before she was elected.

“It is something that maybe should be reviewed,” Brewer stated, though she noted that “that classification is used across America.”

The ADC report did not mince words. “Human error and security lapses directly led to an escape of three inmates,” said Ryan. “The security at the prison did not meet ADC standards.” Further, Ryan noted that state officials had “grave concerns that there was laxness on the part of security staff.”

MTC accepted responsibility for the escape and pledged to do better. “We are in agreement with the report and are committed as a company to make the corrections necessary to provide the level of security expected of all professionals in our business,” said MTC senior vice president Odie Washington. At the same time, Washington claimed the company was not at fault because its Kingman employees never informed corporate headquarters of security problems at the prison.

Regardless, the ADC was charged with oversight of private prisons in the state and the problems at Kingman were so fundamental that they should have been caught. The ADC’s monitor at Kingman was reassigned on August 13, 2010. Wade Woolsey, the ADC official charged with oversight of private prison contracts, resigned.

According to the ADC report, the main flaws that facilitated the escape were false alarms from the intrusion zone alarm system inside the perimeter fence. The alarms were so frequent that MTC guards largely ignored them, taking 20 minutes or longer to check and clear the zone. This left the fence area without a zone alarm until it was cleared. Staff considered clearing the alarms less important than “answering the telephone, issuing keys, [and] checking staff in,” the report stated.

Further, prisoners had easy and direct access to the perimeter fence via the dog yard, which was part of a newly-discontinued program designed to use prisoners to habilitate dogs prior to their adoption. Additionally, an outside access door from a housing unit was apparently left propped open with a rock.

A shift change occurred around 9:00 p.m. During that time, and at every other shift change, there was a window of fifteen minutes or more when there were no perimeter guards because they were going off duty and had to check in their weapons, while guards coming on duty waited to check out the weapons. Further, mobile perimeter patrols always came from the same direction at the same intervals, making them easy to predict. After the escape, it took MTC staff two hours to notify the ADC.

Guards and supervisors at the MTC prison were poorly trained and had little experience, with 80% being newly hired or newly promoted. There was also a lack of respect for guards among the prisoners, who flaunted regulations by growing long hair and facial hair, and not displaying their identification cards.

“The inmate attitude appeared to be poor,” ADC investigators wrote. “One inmate spoke in a disrespectful manner to the Warden when she questioned his lack of identification, another called out ‘Fuck ADC’ as we approached.”

Among many other problems, ADC investigators found that sand in the area around the perimeter fence wasn’t being replaced so that easily discernible tracks could be spotted in the event of an escape. The investigators also found large amounts of cardboard materials, piles of dirt and a sweat lodge between the inner and outer fences, plus excessive vehicular traffic on the perimeter security road, which provided access to another prison.

MTC’s once-a-day fence checks were insufficient and the investigation team went unchallenged by the static and mobile perimeter guards even when intruding into the area between the inner and outer fences. Problems in the prison’s armory included missing ammunition and weapons being placed in storage while loaded.

MTC agreed to a plan to correct all the deficiencies noted in the ADC report. Further, county and state officials have asked MTC to pay more than $100,000 for expenses related to responding to the escape. And in September 2010, the Haas family filed a $10 million notice of claim against Arizona and a wrongful death suit against MTC. See: Haas v. Management & Training Corporation, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:10-cv-02043-JAT.

The high-profile escape from the MTC facility rekindled debate over Arizona’s controversial use of private prisons. “If we’re going to give these private companies oversight over our inmates, we need to make sure we’re holding them accountable,” said David Lujan, a Democratic candidate for Arizona Attorney General.

Republican attorney general candidate Tom Horne said prisoners with murder convictions should be banned from medium-security facilities. “I think the Attorney General should be monitoring that sort of thing, maintaining stats, keeping track,” he observed.

Governor Jan Brewer, a strong proponent of private prisons, put a different spin on the ADC report, saying it revealed the escape was the result of human error and not due to problems inherent with private prisons.

ADC Director Ryan said he was convinced there is a role for private prisons in Arizona. Around 6,400 of the state’s 40,000 prisoners are incarcerated in privately-operated facilities.

Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature is also very much in favor of prison privatization. In 2009, the state took the unprecedented step of offering $100 million annually for a private company to operate all but one ADC prison complex. The bill was signed into law by Governor Brewer, but the language about privatizing most of the state’s prison system was later repealed after no suitable contractor came forward. As of February 2011, the state was seeking bids from private prison companies to build and operate facilities with an additional 5,000 beds.

Arizona politicians have faced criticism for being unduly influenced by the private prison industry. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison firm, operates six facilities in Arizona – three of which house immigration detainees. Governor Brewer has aides with ties to CCA, and Paul Senseman, Brewer’s spokesman, was formerly a CCA lobbyist. Phoenix-based consulting and lobbying firm Highground manages Brewer’s campaign and also lobbies for CCA. Critics claim that Governor Brewer signed the bill to privatize most of the state’s prison system, as well as controversial legislation to crack down on illegal immigrants (SB 1070), in an effort to benefit the private prison industry. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.1].

Whatever the reasoning, Brewer was wrong when she said the Kingman escape was caused by problems not endemic to private prisons. The ADC investigation revealed poor training, improper perimeter construction, failure to properly install, calibrate and monitor the fence alarm system, and a general laxness that presumably is not present in ADC facilities. These types of short cuts are driven by companies trying to trim costs so as to increase profits.

Private prison firms win contracts by claiming it is cheaper to house prisoners in privately-operated facilities, but that too is a lie. A September 2010 study by Arizona’s Auditor General found that it costs almost $8.00 more per prisoner per day to house a medium-security prisoner in a private prison than in a state prison ($55.89 per diem in a private prison versus $48.13 in a state prison).

Arizona State University criminology and criminal justice professor Travis Pratt found no evidence to support private prison companies’ claims that they save money up-front. Instead, he found they often cut back on staffing, wages and services in order to boost their profit margins.

“Cost savings like that don’t come without consequences,” said Pratt. “And that can present a security risk that is elevated.” A security risk such as allowing three prisoners to escape and go on a deadly crime spree, for example.

“The general issue is the quality of service – and security is a part of that,” stated criminal justice professor Stan Stojkovic, at the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “They’re there to make money and any way they can cut corners means they make more money.”

In 2008, then-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and state Senator Robert Blendu drafted and introduced legislation to require that private prison companies build their facilities to state prison construction standards; share information about prisoners and their employees with state officials; and stop importing dangerous, violent felons from other states. The bill was defeated.

“The private prison industry lobbied heavily against that bill, and they were successful,” said then-Napolitano lobbyist Michael Haener.

The July 30, 2010 escape from the Kingman prison has revived efforts to hold private prison companies accountable. Unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Goddard said he would push to revive the 2008 bill, and called for an overview of prisoner classification policies.

Perhaps the silver lining in the tragic outcome of the MTC escape will be that it slows Arizona’s headlong rush into wholesale prison privatization. Given the political influence and deep pockets of private prison companies, though, it is unlikely that the push towards privatization will be slowed for very long.

Sources: ADC report, Associated Press, Arizona Republic,,,,,,, Phoenix New Times

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Related legal case

Haas v. Management & Training Corporation