Arizona Lawmakers Invest More In Private Prisons After Record-High Campaign Contributions

By Jimmy Jenkins
Joseph Darius Jaafari and Justin Price, Arizona Republic
Published: Friday, July 30, 2021 - 4:55am
Updated: Monday, August 2, 2021 - 8:44am

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This report is a partnership between KJZZ and the Arizona Republic.

Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic
The closure of the Florence complex represented a unique opportunity for private prison groups, whose spending on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts in Arizona reached record levels over the past two years.

A lobbyist for the GEO Group, a private prison company, invited state Rep. John Kavanagh for food and drinks in January of 2020. The bill was modest enough: $55.31, according to state records. 

It’s unclear what the lobbyist and Kavanagh talked about — lobbyists aren’t required to provide receipts or a record of what was discussed to the state. 

Campaign records show Kavanagh received $3,750 in campaign contributions that same year from the GEO Group.

The following year, when it came time to expand the amount of money that private prisons can be paid, Kavanagh joined his Republican colleagues and voted for a $43 million increase.

Have you worked for Arizona Correctional Industries? Or for one of the companies that employs prisoners?

Almost half that money will simply go to increased payments for prisons, which have not received previous adjustments for inflation, and raises for private prison staff. The rest of the money is expected to be used to house new prisoners, who will be moved out of the state's prison in Florence and may end up in GEO and CoreCivics facilities in Arizona and beyond.

Kavanagh, who represents Fountain Hills, did not comment about his vote in favor of the pay hike or the campaign contributions, nor did any of the other 20 Republican lawmakers who received thousands of dollars in lobby and campaign money from prison companies since 2016 and also voted to increase their budgets.

Only one Democrat, Rep. Alma Hernandez (D-Tucson) received an individual contribution from a lobbyist in 2019 who represents private prisons, but she did not vote for the budget increase, which passed along party lines. She did not return an email or phone call to her office on Wednesday. 

GEO Group also did not respond to emails and calls. 

CoreCivic denied that their spending on lobbying or campaign contributions have resulted in any special treatment or past quid pro quo, as prison reformers claimed. 

“CoreCivic's political activities are transparently reported and consistent with all relevant laws,” said Ryan Gustin, public affairs manager for CoreCivic. “The influence over the procurement process suggested ... is illegal, and we consider any statement along those lines false and defamatory.”

Lobbyists often spend money to wine and dine lawmakers to get them to vote in their clients’ interests — and politicians welcome the meetings. But the closure of the Florence complex represented a unique opportunity for private prison groups, whose spending on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts in Arizona reached record levels over the past two years, according to a review of campaign data and voting records reviewed by the Arizona Republic and KJZZ. 

While Republicans, including Gov. Doug Ducey, and the Department of Corrections have said closing Florence would save taxpayers money, the Legislature’s new budget allocation includes plans to pay private prisons $85 per day for these prisoners — a rate far higher than the current $67 per-day average. It also is not clear why the department would turn the prisoners over to private prisons when there are more than 7,600 empty beds in public facilities across the state, as of July 23. 

Democrats question moving prisoners to private facilities in June. At the time a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee said he couldn’t say if the move would save Arizona money, only that lobbyists asked the committee for an increase in their contracts and they received it.

This kind of direct access to legislators has some lawmakers and prison reformers arguing that the state is getting a bad deal on private prison contracts, as a direct result of money flowing from private prison groups into lawmakers’ coffers.

“There's a direct correlation between the awards of these contracts, and the campaign donations,” said John Fabricius, executive director for Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections. “It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on here. ... It's out here in plain sight.”

Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic
Earlier this year, the Department of Corrections permitted private prison companies to bid for contracts to house prisoners displaced by the Florence complex closure.

A Little Goes A Long Way

CoreCivic and GEO Group have spent $23,910 on meals or special events for lawmakers since 2016, according to data published by the secretary of State. In the same time period, the two companies and select employees have given another $60,918 to state lawmakers’ campaigns. Most of the money was spent in the past two years. 

That represents a dramatic increase from the years between 2000 and 2014, when lobbyists and private prison groups paid less than $12,000 for lawmakers’ meals and events. 

Compared to congressional campaigns, $85,000 in donations over six years doesn’t seem like a lot. But in state races, lawmakers and lobbyists say it buys plenty of influence. 

Even a contribution of a few hundred dollars is significant, according to state Rep. Diego Rodriguez (D-Phoenix), a member of the Criminal Justice Reform and Judiciary Committee.

With a razor thin margin in favor of Republicans in both chambers, every dollar and vote matters, he said, adding that private prison lobbyists specifically target committee chairs and leadership in both chambers.

“Those are the people that set the agendas,” he said. “Whatever leverage that an outfit like GEO Group can get over any one of those key members is very important.”

Three lawmakers who voted for the private prisons’ pay raise and also were among those who received the most money from those same companies, their employees or their lobbyists: Kavanagh, the former Senate speaker and current vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee; State Sen. Thomas J. Shope (R-Coolidge), vice chair of three different committees; and State Sen. Vince Leach (R-Saddlebrook), the Senate’s president pro tempore and vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Together they have received $10,200 since 2018.

Both Leach and Shope have prisons located in their districts, Marana and Florence, respectively. The prisons are among the largest employers in their areas.

“These are the folks that, across the board, for every special interest, are the highest priorities to donate to, to wine and dine, to support in their reelection,” said Marilyn Rodriguez, founder of Creosote Partners, a progressive legislative advocacy firm in Arizona. She says the average contribution to state lawmakers is around $100-$200.

“If you open up the campaign expenditure reports for the chairpersons, you’ll see that they have exponentially more contributions across the board, because they have the power,” she said.

As committee chairs and vice chairs, those legislators have the power to stop bills from moving forward, if they choose.

Rep. Rodriguez said he’s introduced bills that would have, for example, ended privatization of health care services in Arizona’s state prisons and brought those services back under the state's purview. 

Caroline Isaacs
Caroline Isaacs
Caroline Isaacs is the program director for the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona.

“I couldn’t even get a hearing for that bill,” Rodriguez said. “But on the other hand, when you have a budget process that builds in yearly increases for private prison beds — those contributions speak volumes about where the influence really is.”

Rodriguez, who is running for the state attorney general seat next year, says bills that he supported to allow people to earn early release from prison also have been repeatedly defeated in committee. 

Companies often find other ways to contribute to lawmakers beyond dinners and campaign donations. CoreCivic, for example, spent $12,000 over two years, some of which was used to hold an annual lunch event on the Capitol lawn. In 2019, the company dropped $400 on lawmakers at the Tin Roof, a music and bar venue in Nashville, Tennessee, during a conference. 

Caroline Isaacs, the program director for the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona, a group opposed to private prisons, said that this spending pattern helps companies like Core Civic or GEO get lawmakers to answer their phone calls or invite them to the negotiating table. 

“They buy their way into the good graces of local and state governments in a number of ways, some more obvious than others,” Isaacs said. “The contributions that you’ve been able to find are probably just the tip of the iceberg.”

Private Prison Payday

Private prison proponents say moving more people out of state-run prisons and into private ones eliminates government bureaucracy. 

“This is the role that the industry has played for decades in a number of different states under Republicans and Democrats,” said Alexandra Wilkes, national spokeswoman for Day 1 Alliance, a trade association representing private prison companies. “We have come in as a flexible partner to the government to relieve dangerous conditions, overcrowding conditions and to be able to provide some of the cutting edge programs that the industry has become known for.”

Wilkes also pushed back against the proposition that private prison groups — not the government — are calling the shots. 

“The companies that are involved in these contractor relationships have a contract with the government,” she said. “So the government is the one that sets the terms."

Earlier this year, the Department of Corrections permitted private prison companies to bid for contracts to house prisoners displaced by the Florence complex closure. These are mainly moderate- to high-risk prisoners who have typically remained in state facilities due to increased need for security. 

GEO Group and Core Civic responded to the request.  

By that time, the Legislature had already allocated the money necessary to pay the private companies what they asked for to run those facilities, assuming they win their bids.

The $43 million budget increase passed by Republicans in a party line vote in April includes a 25% hike in per diems, or the daily cost to house a prisoner.

Though per diem rates vary across the system, they have averaged $67 per person for the past decade. That’s slightly lower than the $71 per day rate quoted for public prisons, according to most recent numbers reported by the Department of Corrections. The Joint Budget Legislative Committee calculated an increase to as high as $85 per day.

The daily rate for per diems was based off initial numbers proposed by private prison groups. During the caucus hearing, Geoff Paulson, a JLBC member, said lobbyists from companies such as GEO and CoreCivic had asked for an increase in their contracts.

The state is also paying $16 million to make up for yearly inflation that has historically not been given to prison companies. Another $2.1 million will be used to give corrections officers a 5% pay raise. 

Paulson added during the meeting that it’s unclear what increases state facilities might receive moving forward. 

On July 15, the state procurement department held a 20-minute meeting for private companies to review the request and ask questions. A spokeswoman stated that winning bidders will be allowed to house state prisoners outside of Arizona, away from families or loved ones. The state’s proposal also guarantees capacity up to 90%, meaning that even if beds aren’t filled, the state will pay the prison companies as if they were occupied.

Bill Lamoreaux, a Department of Corrections, Reentry and Rehabilitation spokesman, said the department needed to look at all avenues to place prisoners, including private facilities. He did not explain why the state wasn’t placing the prisoners in its own facilities or provide proof of how the contracts with private prisons could save the state money.

Critics Incensed By Private Prison Move

The proposal has incensed former prisoners and prisoners’ advocates, who say the state is moving in the opposite direction of the federal government, which terminated contracts with private prisons earlier this year. 

Channel Powe
Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic
Channel Powe, a Phoenix resident, talks to Maricopa County Board of Supervisors on March 22, 2016.

“Since we know from much research that for-profit prisons are ineffective, inefficient, and more costly, why aren't we focused on using evidence-based practices that actually keep people out of prison, keep the public safer and are less costly in the short and long term?” asked Dianne Post, a human rights lawyer who attended the July 15 meeting.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman responded by saying: “That is not germane to this meeting.”

Outside of the meeting, Channel Powe, a former elected school board member for the Balsz district whose father was incarcerated, said that awarding more money to groups like CoreCivic or GEO Group is akin to supporting modern-day slavery. 

“Why are we investing in making money?” she asked, referring to the private prison groups. “This is not Wall Street.”

Michael Suttle, who spent six months in 2018 at the Kingman prison, which is operated by GEO Group, called the move immoral. 

“I have often wondered how the general public is OK with corporations profiting off of incarceration,” Suttle said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s evil.”

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