After Hawaii sought bids last month for a lucrative new contract to house hundreds of its excess prisoners on the mainland, no rivals stepped up to challenge the current contractor.

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety announced Thursday that Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison company in the country, was the sole bidder for the contract.

The department released the bidder information in response to Civil Beat’s request — three weeks after we began asking for it.

As we reported Monday, the department initially refused to disclose the names of any bidders — or even how many bids had been submitted — saying that the information was “confidential.”

By contrast, at least three other states — Arizona, Mississippi and Idaho — have released such bidder information as a routine matter on for-profit prison contracts during the past year and a half.

But the department changed course after Civil Beat brought to its attention a 1994 decision by the Hawaii Office of Information Practices, which declared that the bidder information should be made public, once the deadline for submitting bids passed.

According to the department’s request for proposals, the deadline for the pending contract was March 31.

Saguaro Correctional Center, Eloy, Arizona patrol. 5 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In 1998, Hawaii began sending its prisoners to prisons operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, of Nashville, Tennessee, the country’s largest for-profit prison company. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under the current contract, signed in 2011, CCA is housing nearly 1,400 Hawaii prisoners — about a quarter of the state’s inmate population — at the Saguaro Correctional Center, a 1,896-bed prison in Eloy, Arizona, about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix.

CCA charges the state a per-diem rate of $70.49 per prisoner, for a total of just under $31 million in revenue in fiscal year 2015.

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, said the department has yet to select the bid winner, even though the “provider selection” was supposed to be made by April 18.

Schwartz noted that the schedule in bid documents was tentative, but she declined to provide more details.

“We are still in the process of awarding a contract, so we are not releasing any further information at this time,” Schwartz said.

CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns declined to comment on the pending contract. “In deference to the process, we reserve comment at this time,” he said.

Saguaro Correctional Center CCA Fence CCA mountains Eloy Arizona1
As of April 25, 2016, Corrections Corporation of American housed 1,389 Hawaii prisoners — almost a quarter of the state’s inmate population — at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii has a longstanding relationship with CCA dating back to 1998, when it began sending prisoners to the CCA-run Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minnesota. The state has since gone on to use eight other CCA-run prisons across six states.

For years, the state retained CCA’s services through the use of inter-governmental agreements, a tactic that allowed the Department of Public Safety to bypass the state’s competitive bidding requirements in the Hawaii Public Procurement Code.

But, in 2010, the practice came under fire from Hawaii State Auditor Marion Higa, who accused the department of circumventing the procurement rules in an effort to steer a noncompetitive contract to CCA.

The following year, the department decided to follow a standard procurement process — for the first time since the state began shipping prisoners to the mainland in 1995.

In the end, though, CCA was the sole bidder and easily secured the 2011 contract.

Five years later, the department appears to be on the same track with the pending contract — which takes effect when the 2011 contract expires at the end of June.

In recent years, the problems at Saguaro have included the murders of three Hawaiian prisoners and several lawsuits over prison conditions. It’s unclear what new conditions, if any, the department will seek to impose in a new contract, once negotiations begin after the bid winner is selected.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, finds the process troubling, noting that the state has no choice but to deal with CCA — and CCA knows it.

“We are basically being taken hostage,” Brady said. “CCA knows they are in a great negotiating position. And, once the contract is signed, they know they can get away with a lot of stuff because we have no other option. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

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