2010 escape at Kingman an issue for MTC’s bid

by Bob Ortega

Aug. 11, 2011 Arizona Republic

Critics and supporters of the private company that runs the Kingman prison agree that last year’s escapes don’t give the complete picture about Management and Training Corp.

It’s the rest of the picture on which they differ.

Critics express astonishment that, less than a year after two of the Kingman escapees allegedly murdered an Oklahoma couple, MTC is a finalist for a contract to provide up to 5,000 more private-prison beds to Arizona’s Department of Corrections. They point to a broader record of problems at MTC facilities as showing a company that doesn’t learn from its mistakes.

La. firm says prison escapes led to changes | Lapses

MTC argues that Kingman, with a new second security fence, revamped alarm systems, additional patrols and other changes, is now the safest prison in Arizona. In that case, as in others, “we quickly did what was necessary to shore up security to make sure it wouldn’t happen again,” said Issa Arnita, a spokesman for the Centerville, Utah-based company.

MTC is bidding to provide a 3,000-bed facility in San Luis, south of Yuma, or a 3,000- or 5,000-bed facility in Coolidge. Public hearings will be held in those communities next week, part of a series of hearings the Arizona Department of Corrections is holding on proposals by MTC and three other bidders: Corrections Corp. of America, Geo Group Inc. and LaSalle Southwest Corrections. The department wants to add 5,000 prison beds and has requested bids from private prison companies. A decision is expected by mid-September.

Local leaders in San Luis and Coolidge have welcomed MTC’s bid.

“The (Kingman) escape was a bad one, and we all recognize that,” Coolidge Mayor Thomas Shope said, “but we don’t really have any concern about it. We feel like now they’re probably the safest because of what they’ve had to go back and do.” Then, too, said Shope, “we have about 19 percent unemployment here. . . . We hear this would bring from 400 to 800 jobs, which would be great.”

Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma, said “the jobs are nothing to be scoffed at.”

Without expressing support for a specific bid (Geo Group also is proposing 2,000 or 3,000 beds in San Luis), Jones said, “If you look at it head to head, it may be slightly more costly to use the private beds, but we need to have a mix of public and private prisons,” in part because private prisons are more flexible.

Other facility issues Recent audits of MTC’s other Arizona prison, the minimum-security Marana facility, suggest operational problems.

In August 2010, as part of a security review of all Arizona prisons following the Kingman escapes, state inspectors visiting Marana found broken security cameras, swamp coolers out of commission, insecure doors and windows on housing units, inadequate perimeter lighting, and broken control-room panels that failed to alert staff when inmates opened exterior doors. The inspectors noted that several staffers, including the chief of security, “acknowledged these indicator lights have been down for several months” and that managers said they hadn’t been fixed “due to fiscal reasons.”

Seven months later, in March, state inspectors went back to Marana for an annual audit. The control-room panel hadn’t been fixed, nor had the broken security cameras. Insecure doors and windows also had not been replaced. Inspectors said MTC kept promising to fix the problems but still hadn’t done so. The Arizona Republic obtained the audit through the Arizona Public Records Law.

MTC’s Arnita said Wednesday that the cameras and doors have now been fixed and the windows are being replaced. The control panel, however, is still awaiting parts, which Arnita said have to be custom-made and are on order. He was not able to say when the repair will be completed.

“These guys have a long record of problems,” said Frank Smith, a representative of the Private Corrections Working Group, which opposes prison privatization and has ties to unions representing corrections workers. In particular, he pointed to staffing issues as a possible factor in riots, prisoner-care issues and other problems.

History of problems MTC started out 30 years ago as a contractor running Job Corps centers, and that remains part of its business. It moved into corrections in 1987 and now operates 20 prisons in seven states, with a capacity for 25,310 inmates.

In 2003, the Justice Department investigated MTC’s operation of the Santa Fe County Jail in New Mexico and found a shortage of staffing, including too few and undertrained medical staff. Investigators said that over several months, MTC tripled the inmate population to 580 without hiring additional guards or supervisors. A doctor visited every six weeks; the facility’s one nurse was ordered not to spend more than five minutes with any patient. Officers, paid $8.50 an hour with no benefits, frequently quit to work for the state prison nearby. The report led the U.S. Marshals Service to remove the more than 100 inmates it had at the jail.

MTC replaced its senior managers there. Arnita said the claim that inmate populations tripled was untrue and MTC met all of its contractual staffing obligations. In 2005, MTC canceled its contract with the county, saying it was impossible to cover the cost of operating the jail at the rate the county was willing to pay.

Also in 2003, a state investigation of a riot at MTC’s Eagle Mountain prison in California, in which two inmates were beaten to death, cited lack of staffing and training. Dozens of officers from nearby state prisons had to be called in to help end the 90-minute riot. Arnita said the prison was fully staffed at the time but staff had no access to weapons because California’s Department of Corrections limited armory access to CDC officers, who weren’t present when the riot began.

Last year, MTC had riots at both its Kingman and Marana facilities. In February, 12 inmates and one staff member were hurt when an estimated 150 inmates at Marana rioted for an hour. On May 31, eight inmates were taken to the hospital after a 45-minute brawl between Black and White inmates at Kingman.

Arnita said the disturbances shouldn’t be called riots because the staff didn’t lose control of either facility, and he said that both prisons were staffed at state-required levels. MTC said whenever there have been unfilled positions, the company has covered those through overtime.

Officials with the company point out that there is no financial benefit, at least in Arizona, to leave positions unfilled.

In order to ensure private contractors fill positions quickly, Arizona cuts its payment by the equivalent of the salary and benefits of any position that isn’t filled within 30 to 45 days, depending on the contract. Through last month, Corrections withheld $843,964 from MTC for vacancies at Kingman and $53,885 for vacancies at Marana for the year.