State downsizes prison bed goal as inmate population declines

Prison officials last week officially ended the delay-plagued request for a new, privately operated, 5,000-bed minimum/medium security prison.

Citing a decline in prison population, the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) announced a plan to cut that request in half and change the configuration of the requested beds to 500 state-run maximum-security slots and 2,000 privately operated minimum/medium spaces.

Department statistics show that the state's inmate population increased by only 65 inmates in fiscal 2010 before declining by 296 in fiscal 2011, creating the lowest growth rate since 1973.

The now-cancelled 5,000-bed increase has been in the works since January 2009 and has experienced numerous delays leading up to Thursday's cancellation.

Most recently, a lawsuit held up the award of the contract, alleging that prison officials had failed to create a required biennial report comparing the cost to house prisoners in state facilities with those run by private operators. The reports also are to include the nature and cost of rehabilitative programs offered to inmates.

In fact, the department has fulfilled that requirement, at least in part. Since 2005, ADC has produced a cost-comparison report but has not done the program comparison, a shortcoming that a department spokesman said would be alleviated as soon as by the end of December.

The ADC report for fiscal 2010 indicates that per diem savings on minimum-security prisoners are almost nonexistent. ADC lists its total costs per prisoner per day as $55.59, compared to $54.20 at contract institutions. But after deducting costs for mandated services that contractors don't provide, the costs are even closer, with state-kept prisoners costing $46.59 per day, just three cents more than contracted operators' cost of $46.56.

The difference holds true in the case of medium-custody inmates. Those in state custody cost $57.97 versus $60.66 for contract custody. After adjustments for medical costs, inmate management functions and depreciation, the difference is even greater, $48.42 compared to $53.02.

The biggest saving to taxpayers comes from the cost of building the facilities themselves. Usually built with bonds put up by a local development authority, a new complex could cost as much as $250 million depending on the location and how it is configured.

Prison operators generally arrange prison financing so facilities are paid for by the end of the contract term.