Arizona Prison Privatization Proposal Doesn’t Jive with Market

Though it generated a lot of headlines in places like The New York Times, Arizona’s ballyhooed proposal to turn over some or most of its prisons to private operators is revealing itself to be all smoke but no fire. According to the Arizona Daily Star:

Arizona’s plan to turn over its prisons to private companies in exchange for a $100 million upfront payment is having trouble getting off the drawing board, with the plan behind schedule and prison operators showing little interest.

The privatization effort is required under a law enacted last summer as lawmakers struggled to close a huge budget shortfall. It directs the state to award a contract to one or more private companies to run an unspecified number of prisons for $100 million.

It emerged as Republican lawmakers cast about for alternatives to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal to increase the sales tax to avoid deep cuts.

The prison-concession provision doesn’t specify which or how many of the state’s 10 prison complexes would be included, what would happen to current state employees or the length of a contract. State officials were supposed to provide an initial batch of information to potential bidders on Oct. 1, but missed the deadline.

Corrections Corp. of America, the nation’s largest private prison company, “is not focused on that,” said Louise Grant, a CCA vice president, adding “it’s very questionable whether or not we would participate.”

It’s easy to see why it’s not attracting interest—it was a hastily developed proposal that failed to jive with the reality of the market. Here’s why.

After several iterations through the spring and summer, the FY2010 budget signed into law in September included provisions requiring the Arizona Department of Administration to issue a request for proposals for a concession agreement allowing private vendors to operate any Arizona state prison complex or combination thereof (aside from the state prison in Yuma). But on top of that, the state also wants to get a $100 million upfront payment, which is the source of the problem.

Despite using the term “concession”—which typically implies a transfer of most risks and responsibilities associated with facility ownership, except for the title itself—what policymakers crafted here is nothing of the sort. It’s just a glorified operations contract without the facility ownership component that would be such a value driver, as it’s on the facility end that private prison operators can really drive down costs that could potentially be capitalized in the form of a large upfront payment.

So Arizona policymakers dropped the ball by crafting a proposal that few, if any, companies are interested in bidding on. If I’m a private prison company and I can get contracts in a variety of states, why would I bother bidding on a less-than-attractive proposal to operate facilities I don’t and won’t own, all while making a $100 million loan to the state (taking a huge chunk of my capital reserves) on top of it!? I’ll go out on a limb and say, “not gonna happen.”

The kicker with all of this is that the language in House Bill 2010 authorizing the prison(s) concession is immediately preceeded by the also-reknowned statutory language authorizing the sale-leaseback of dozens of state buildings, including several Capitol complex buildings and…you guessed it…state prisons!

So apparently policymakers are OK with selling a prison facility to an investor for 20 years, but not “selling” them to private prison companies as part of a concession to generate upfront revenue and drive cost savings over time. As much as I hate to say it, I don’t think any of this was purposeful, but rather sloppy drafting amid tremendous budget pressures.

Lest I leave the impression that Arizona policymakers have utterly mangled their attempts to rejuvenate prison privatization, I would like to point out that there are two other lesser known prison privatization components of the budget that I believe may have some legs. The first is a requirement that the Arizona Department of Corrections issue a request for proposals and contract for 5,000 new private prison beds at new or existing in-state private prisons. The state certainly needs new prison capacity, and a “greenfield” project like this should not generate significant opposition from the state correctional officers union since no existing jobs are at stake. The second initiative requires the ADOC to issue a request for information, followed by a request for proposals, for the privatization of all correctional health services (including medical and dental services) that are provided in a state owned prison (facility not specified).

Still though, it’s unfortunate to see policymakers generally fumble the ball on prison privatization when the budget crisis demands quick action to cut costs. Privatization is a powerful way to do that, as I argued in a recent appearance on Arizona PBS’s Horizon show.

Reason Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2009
Reason Foundation’s Privatization Research and Commentary