New York Times
July 31, 2007
ELOY, Ariz. — For Bob Weier, a Hawaiian convicted of armed robbery, incarceration at the Red Rock Correctional Center on the outskirts of this dusty town is the latest stop in a far-flung and nomadic exile.
Since his imprisonment 12 years ago on Maui, Mr. Weier, 53, has served his sentence in prisons in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Arizona. He last saw his daughter 11 years ago and has five grandchildren he has never met.
“To them, I’m just a voice who talks to them on the phone for a while,” said Mr. Weier, a heavyset man who expects to be released next year.
Chronic prison overcrowding has corrections officials in Hawaii and at least seven other states looking increasingly across state lines for scarce prison beds, usually in prisons run by private companies. Facing a court mandate, California last week transferred 40 inmates to Mississippi and has plans for at least 8,000 to be sent out of state.
The long-distance arrangements account for a small fraction of the country’s total prison population — about 10,000 inmates, federal officials estimate — but corrections officials in states with the most crowded prisons say the numbers are growing.
One private prison company that houses inmates both in-state and out of state, the Corrections Corporation of America, announced last year that it would spend $213 million on construction and renovation projects for 5,000 prisoners by next year.
“They find that their prison populations are at or beyond capacity and they have to relieve that capacity,” Tony Grande, the company’s president for state relations, said of states turning to private prisons. “They quickly turn to us and we have open prison capacity where we can accommodate growth.”
About one-third of Hawaii’s 6,000 state inmates are held in private in Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky. Alabama has 1,300 prisoners in Louisiana. About 360 inmates from California, which has one of the nation’s most crowded prison systems, are in Arizona and Tennessee.
But while the out-of-state transfers are helping states that have been unwilling, or too slow, to build enough prisons of their own, they have also raised concerns among some corrections officials about excessive prisoner churn, consistency among the private vendors and safety in some prisons.
Moving inmates from prison to prison disrupts training and rehabilitation programs and puts stress on tenuous family bonds, corrections officials say, making it more difficult to break the cycle of inmates committing new crimes after their release.
Several recidivism studies have found that convicts who keep in touch with family members through visits and phone privileges are less likely to violate their parole or commit new offenses. There have been no studies that focused specifically on out-of-state placements.
Paige M. Harrison, a researcher for the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, said the out-of-state inmates faced problems familiar to the large number of in-state prisoners incarcerated hundreds of miles from their homes. A study in 1997 found that more than 60 percent of state inmates were held more than 100 miles from their last place of residence.
“If you’re being held on the other side of Texas or California, you better believe that for many inmates, they’re beyond visitation,” Ms. Harrison said.
The frequent moves can also have a disruptive effect on prisons, whether the transfers occur within a state or not, corrections officials said. In California, a federal court official overseeing a revamping of the prison medical system reported more than 170,000 prisoner moves within the state in the first three months of this year. The moves were found to be inhibiting the ability of inmates to receive health care and draining resources.
In Arizona, where more than 2,000 inmates have been exported to prisons in Oklahoma and Indiana, corrections officials are struggling to provide consistent and effective programming for them, said Dora B. Schriro, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections.
“Having a long-term impact on public safety and recidivism is that much more challenging,” Ms. Schriro said of the arrangements.
The number of inmates shipped out of Arizona would be even larger, but plans for additional transfers to Indiana had to be called off in April after 500 inmates from Arizona rioted at a privately run prison in New Castle, Ind., in part because of complaints about the long distance. Two correctional officers and five inmates were injured in the two-hour incident. Officials there assigned blame to poorly trained guards, many of whom were hired just days before the transfers.
Ms. Schriro said the riot showed how desperate the situation had become. The state’s overcrowding worsened, she said, after two private prisons in Texas now run by the GEO Group, canceled Arizona’s contract and instead signed more lucrative deals with federal corrections agencies.
“We started to add provisional beds in-state through double-bunking, converting several kitchens to bed space and making preparations to bring additional tents online,” Ms. Schriro said.
Eli Coates, a 26-year-old inmate from Arizona serving 10 years for armed robbery, did time at six Arizona prisons and one in Oklahoma before arriving at the New Castle prison early this year. New Castle is managed by the GEO Group.
Mr. Coates said his frequent moves had made it hard to complete educational programs that he hoped would help him get a steady job upon release.
“I was on my way to being able to finish a college program and vocational programs to get a trade,” Mr. Coates said. “But they snatched me up from those opportunities, and here I have to start all over again.”
Mr. Weier, the Hawaiian prisoner here in Arizona, said that each time he moved, he had to reapply for phone privileges, a process that can take six months. Even when he was allowed to call home, he said, he could not always afford the long-distance bills.
“You lose your family identity,” said Mr. Weier. “And that’s not good, because when we go back into society — and more than 95 percent of us will — the only ones who are going to take care of you are your family.”
Without big construction plans or radical sentencing reforms in the offing, Arizona will continue to rely on out-of-state alternatives. The state has some of the toughest sentencing laws in the country and an inmate population exceeding 37,000, or 127 percent of the state’s official prison capacity. Several public prisons are already surrounded by tent cities to accommodate the overflow.
Adam Ramirez, 35, an inmate from Tucson serving six years for a parole violation, sat sweating recently in a 16-man tent at the 100-year-old Florence State Prison, about 15 miles northeast of Eloy in Florence, Ariz.
“It’s always crowded in here,” said Mr. Ramirez, pointing to an empty bed next to his. “They sent that guy out to Oklahoma today and there will be somebody else here today or tomorrow.”
Overcrowding has been a problem in prisons for decades, and the country’s prison and jail population has never been higher, rising 2.8 percent from July 2005 to July 2006 to reach 2,245,189, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics bulletin. A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that the prison population will grow by another 192,000 in the next five years.
State corrections officials and prison industry executives say that prison companies are an attractive alternative when cash-strapped state governments need additional prison space faster than they can build it. Private prisons can also provide political cover to elected officials seeking to avoid charges of coddling criminals and spending large sums on prison construction.
Alabama officials turned to the Corrections Corporation of American for space after a judge threatened to hold the overloaded state corrections department in contempt for failing to pick up inmates from county jails, said Mr. Grande, the company official. The company found out-of-state space for 1,500 inmates within 30 days. When hurricanes beset Florida in 2003, Mr. Grande said, the company found alternative prison space within 72 hours.
But state governments often pay a premium for those spaces. The riot in Indiana in April came after Ms. Schriro, the Arizona corrections director, agreed to pay about $14 million a year to house 610 prisoners there. That is about $3 million more than the state would have paid for inmates at in-state public prisons, said a spokeswoman for Arizona corrections, Robin Wilkins.
Ms. Schriro is moving forward with plans to expand prison space for Arizona prisoners locally and in private prisons in Oklahoma. But she expects the state prison population to exceed capacity by the time those expansion projects are complete.