In 1978, Arizona had about 3,200 inmates. Today, the total is more than 31,000 and growing, with much of the momentum attributable to the private prison lobby–which recently succeeded in getting the industry exempted from most state taxes, reports The Nation magazine. Private prison companies lure state-employed guards by offering short-term bonuses and pay raises. They do not dwell on the fact that, unlike unionized state prison guards–whose union, AFSCME, has negotiated a generous, and guaranteed, pension package over the years–private guards receive a benefits package that in the long term is virtually worthless. For a few thousand dollars in ready cash, the newly hired private guards give up the possibility of a lifelong guaranteed retirement income. “Ten grand was the going rate last year,” says David Mendoza, legislative director for AFSCME. “Five thousand dollars up front; five thousand if they stick it out for a couple years. That buys a pickup truck. The young ones, not thinking about retirement, they’re easy prey.”
The Nation reviews several controversies over private prisons, including one in Pecos, Tx., where a Wackenhut spinoff called the GEO Group agreed to take over three prisons on a ten-year contract, and to use its out-of-state contacts to bring in prisoners to fill an empty third site. Since the prison was already built, and since the county carried the responsibility for servicing the debt, it was essentially a risk-free proposition for the corporation. The two existing prisons have a combined population of more than 2,000. GEO began wooing Arizona, a state that imports hundreds of prisoners from Alaska and Hawaii to do time in its private facilities, while also exporting its own state prisoners to private sites in Texas and Oklahoma.