Hawaii prisoners housed at a for-profit prison in Arizona will soon have new neighbors: 200 Nevada prisoners who are considered by Silver State officials as “the most disruptive and the most dangerous.”
Last month, the Nevada Board of Examiners signed off on a two-year, $9.2 million contract with CoreCivic, the largest for-profit prison company in the country, to house its excess prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center.
Nevada prisoners are slated to arrive at Saguaro later this month, joining about 1,600 Hawaii prisoners at the 1,896-bed prison in Eloy, Arizona, about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix.
James Dzurenda, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, told the Board of Examiners that the transfer will be reserved for prisoners who are “creating a fear factor” — those who recruit gang members and extort others.
“We are not going to tolerate any of this behavior by these inmates. If they want to partake in gang activity, if they want to disrupt the operation of our facilities, they will find themselves going to Arizona,” Dzurenda said. “I can create a better environment here in Nevada for those that really do need the help to get back in the community.”
The Hawaii Department of Public Safety says the arrival of Nevada prisoners is no cause for alarm, noting that Hawaii prisoners will be separated from the Nevada inmates.
“The Nevada inmates will be housed in an area fenced off and separated from Hawaii inmate housing,” said Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman. “This population coming in will not be mixed in with the Hawaii population during any programming, recreation or meal time.”
In an email, CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns wrote: “In addition to physical barriers such as fencing and physical plant design, appropriate security and procedural measures will be taken to ensure the inmate populations do not mix.”
Burns declined to provide more details on how prisoners will be separated in dining halls, recreational yards and other common areas. Still, he said, Saguaro is a “multi-security” facility that’s “well-equipped to meet the needs of both Hawaii and Nevada” prisoners.
“CoreCivic has deep experience managing distinct populations within a single correctional facility setting,” Burns said. “We have worked closely with both Hawaii and Nevada officials to ensure potential issues presented by this management approach have been addressed to their satisfaction.”
But Carrie Ann Shirota, a lead organizer for the Hawaii Justice Coalition, points out that Burns’ claim is contradicted by CoreCivic’s dismal history.
“They are asking us to trust and take their word at the face value that they’ll keep our inmates safe. But they have a terrible track record,” said Shirota, who once examined the for-profit prison industry as a fellow at the Open Society Foundations. “Even assuming that they won’t be mixing our inmates, we’re still running a higher risk.”
Hawaii first began sending its prisoners to private, for-profit prisons on the mainland in 1995 — as a “short-term solution to chronic overcrowding.” More than 20 years later, the state’s dependency on for-profit prisons shows no signs of waning.
Hawaii signed its first contract with CoreCivic — formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America — in 1998, when it began sending prisoners to the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minnesota. It has since gone on to use eight other CoreCivic-run prisons across six states — including Saguaro, which was opened just for Hawaii in 2007.
Last year, the Department of Public Safety signed a new contact with CoreCivic to continue housing prisoners at Saguaro, despite a long history of problems that includes the murders of at least three Hawaii prisoners there.
In fiscal year 2016, CoreCivic housed a daily average of 1,388 Hawaii prisoners — about a quarter of the state’s inmate population — at Saguaro. An additional 230 prisoners are now housed there to make room for facility upgrades at the Halawa Correctional Facility.
For Nevada, the transfer of 200 prisoners to Saguaro marks its first foray into contracting with the for-profit prison industry.
But the driving force behind the transfer is the same as Hawaii’s: a dire shortage of beds — exacerbated by upcoming repairs and upgrades that will put several wings of Nevada prisons out of commission.
“We have 322 inmates today that are not sleeping or being housed in traditional bed areas,” Dzurenda said last month. “Those inmates go into day room areas, program areas that we make appropriate housing for, but it takes away program space that we know is going to help get these inmates back into society much better than they came in.”
Nevada’s decision to outsource its prison operation comes amid an increasing public debate about the use of for-profit facilities, which has surged since the 1980s to cope with soaring populations of prisoners, jail inmates and immigrant detainees across the country.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would phase out the use of for-profit prisons by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, causing the stock prices of CoreCivic and a number of other companies to tumble precipitously.
The move was in response to a scathing report by the department’s inspector general that found more safety and security issues at for-profit prisons.
But the tide against the use of for-profit prisons turned again under the Trump administration. In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama administration’s policy, saying it impaired the Bureau of Prisons’ ability to respond to future needs.
With President Donald Trump in office, the stock prices of for-profit prison companies have also rebounded, as investors speculated that demand would surpass earlier levels — with an expected surge in the number of immigrant detainees.
CoreCivic’s shares, in particular, have soared, rallying more than 50 percent — largely thanks to Trump’s victory last year, as well as the company’s effort to diversify its work by getting into real estate and re-entry programs.
But CoreCivic’s bread and butter is still locking up prisoners for profit, and Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says it’s important to keep in mind that, ultimately, the company is only interested in maximizing profits for its shareholders — even at the expense of prisoners under its care.
That’s why, Brady says, the Department of Public Safety has to step up its oversight.
“CoreCivic has an abysmal record of operating its facilities, and yet Hawaii is turning deaf ears. They say, ‘Oh, we call them, and they tell us it’s all good.’ No wonder they like doing business with Hawaii,” Brady said.
“I mean, Hawaii has lost its moral compass. We really don’t consider the people who are inside. We don’t consider how we got to this place — which is through bad policies that are punitive and ineffective. We must reverse that.”