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Riot at Private Prison in Arizona Prompts Review, Reforms and Change in Contractor

In July 2015, the privately-run Arizona State Prison Complex at Kingman (ASP Kingman) was rocked by a protracted riot in which 16 people – both guards and prisoners – suffered injuries. Following the disturbance, the state scrapped its contract with Management & Training Corporation (MTC) and handed operation of the prison to a different contractor.

The riot caused over $2 million in damage and forced the relocation of more than 1,000 prisoners to other facilities. Further, Governor Doug Ducey ordered the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to review security procedures at five other private prisons in the state. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.63].

The resulting report by state prison officials found that a “culture of disorganization, disengagement, and disregard of ADC ... policies and fundamental inmate management and security issues” had existed at ASP Kingman prior to the disturbance, and played a substantial role in the incident. The match that apparently ignited the riot came in the form of a fight between two prisoners that MTC staff failed to control.

The 183-page ADC report found that private prisons in Arizona, managed by the GEO Group, CCA (recently rebranded as CoreCivic) and MTC, were in substantial compliance with state regulations relating to prison operations, but improvements in certain areas were needed. Notably, rapid-response teams at all of the for-profit prisons had faltered in their response to simulated disturbances of the sort that occurred at ASP Kingman.

MTC had operated Kingman, a 3,500-bed medium- and minimum-security facility, since 2004. Following the riot, which left some housing units “uninhabitable,” the state contracted management of the prison to the GEO Group in December 2015. The GEO contract, worth around $70 million annually, extends to 2023.

“The governor made clear after the riot that he will not tolerate anything less than a commitment to public safety from operators the state works with,” said spokesman Daniel Scarpinato. “That’s why he fired [MTC] once the facts were known. Corrections will continue to monitor operations to ensure the facility is run effectively and safely.”

During MTC’s tenure, ASP Kingman had been plagued by problems – including the high-profile escape of three prisoners in 2010, who killed an elderly vacationing couple in New Mexico before they were captured following a nationwide manhunt. [See: PLN, March 2011, p.24].

And in January 2015, a Kingman prisoner was sexually assaulted and beaten to death by other prisoners; the family of Neil Early, 23, has since filed suit against both MTC and the state, seeking $7.5 million in damages.

A number of changes have been implemented at ASP Kingman under GEO Group’s management. In keeping with the company’s preference for low-risk and compliant populations, 1,500 beds at the facility have been reclassified for sex offenders. The state has also increased the number of ADC contract monitors at the prison from six to nine.

Other reforms included repainting dormitory walls for increased visibility; changing locks, windows and urinal dividers; and the installation of rock gardens that are maintained by prisoners, to give them something to do. Further, GEO officials have held town hall-style meetings with prisoners so they can air their concerns.

Despite such reforms, the facility has continued to experience problems. In July 2016, approaching the one-year anniversary of the riot, four ASP Kingman prisoners were transported to a local hospital with minor injuries following a fight.

Private prisons are big business in Arizona, and a well-known source of campaign contributions by industry lobbyists seeking to influence state and local officials. Despite a long history of problems, the state has continued partnering with private prison firms. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.1].

In June 2016, Arizona’s legislature approved a plan to purchase the Kingman facility from bondholders for about $137 million and refinance the existing debt. The resulting mortgage plan for ASP Kingman, according to the Joint Committee on Capital Review, would save the state millions of dollars. State officials plan to give $2 million of those savings to GEO Group, in order to help the company hire and retain qualified staff. According to the Arizona Republic, that would amount to a $2.00 per hour raise for GEO staff at ASP Kingman.

In comparison, the raise would increase the average annual pay for GEO guards at Kingman to about $33,300, while ADC prison guards earn $36,800 per year on average.

However, as reported by the Republic, state lawmakers did not approve the plan without dissent. A number of Democratic legislators asked why the state would give $2 million to subsidize a private company that should be responsible for its own employee costs. At least Arizona taxpayers will benefit under the purchase and refinance plan, as the ADC’s payments to GEO Group to operate ASP Kingman are expected to drop from approximately $60 per diem for each prisoner to around $40 per diem.


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