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Arizona DOC Director Admits State Economy Would “Collapse” Without Cheap Prisoner Labor

by Jo Ellen Nott

During testimony before Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee on July 14, 2022, state Department of Corrections (DOC) Director David Shinn admitted that communities in the Grand Canyon State would “collapse” without cheap labor from state prisoners.

Shinn’s comment came in answer to questions about a proposed contract for a private prison company to operate the Florence West state prison.

“There are services that this department provides to city, county, local jurisdictions, that simply can't be quantified at a rate that most jurisdictions could ever afford,” Shinn warned lawmakers, referring to prisoners who perform tasks such as maintenance for 50 cents to $1.50 per hour. “If you were to remove these folks from that equation, things would collapse in many of your counties, for your constituents.”

At the Florence West prison, the state’s new contract guidelines anticipate payment of a per diem rate for 675 prisoners, regardless of how many people are incarcerated there. As of mid-July 2022, only 457 prisoners were held in its 750 beds. 

State Rep. Kelli Butler (D-Scottsdale) asked Shinn why the state should agree to a contract that requires it to pay for so many empty beds, to the tune of $78 to $85 a day. In response Shin explained that private prison contracts usually guarantee a 90% occupancy rate to keep the contractor doing business, meaning the state almost always pays for empty beds. 

Butler then asked how many beds were empty statewide, and Shinn reported a current total of more than 5,000 in Arizona’s ten public prisons and seven privately run facilities. So Butler next asked whether moving prisoners to other facilities could save taxpayer money.

But Shinn defended keeping all prisons open, saying the legislature had to do it even if it did not directly benefit DOC. He mentioned rural communities like Apache, Globe, Fort Grant, and Florence West needed the resources or services that prisons provide and that those towns would have to spend more to provide for their residents if they did not have the prisons nearby.  

Butler replied that she was less concerned whether the private prison company makes a certain level of profit and more concerned about Arizona taxpayers. She asked why the state was not closing more prisons, but the committee’s Republican leadership then cut off the questioning, saying it was not germane to the hearing.

An Arizona Republic investigation revealed that Arizona lawmakers approved more contracts with private prisons after campaign contributions from prison profiteers skyrocketed from nearly zero in 2016 to nearly $35,000 four years later. DOC has not yet announced the successful bidder to operate the Florence West prison.

Source:  Arizona Republic

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