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By Anthony Cave June 29, 2016

Arizona’s House Democrats claim governor wants to increase private prison salaries

Arizona House Democrats are questioning the priorities of their Republican counterparts, balking at a Department of Corrections plan to buy a $137 million privately run prison in Kingman.

The Democrats say the plan, which was developed by the governor’s office, the corrections department and the Department of Administration, is bad for taxpayers.

"Gov. (Doug) Ducey wants to use public, taxpayer dollars to increase the salaries of private prison guards," the Democrats wrote in a June 20 blog post. "Guards employed by a multi-billion dollar company that made nearly $140 million in profits last year."

While the state wants to purchase the prison, they want a private company -- GEO Group -- to continue to manage it.

Does the sale include a raise for the private corrections workers?

Acronym soup

The history of the Kingman prison is a bit complicated, and filled with companies with strange names, so we’ll take it slow.

The prison was opened in August 2004 as part of a plan by Gov. Janet Napolitano to build more inmate beds using the private sector. As part of the original agreement, the state was scheduled to pay off the construction of the facility over 20 years and then take ownership.

Until the state’s debt was paid off, a non-profit, Mohave Prison LLC, was created to own the prison.

Management and Training Corporation, a Utah-based private prison operator, was originally contracted to manage Kingman. However, after multiple inmate riots in July 2015, the state fired MTC, and GEO Group assumed their contract.

GEO Group is one of the largest private prison operators in the country. The Florida-based company manages more than 60 correctional facilities nationwide.

Now Ducey and others in the state want to buy the Kingman prison early as part of what they say is a cost-saving measure. According to the proposal, the state owning the prison would save taxpayers more than $70 million and reduce the per-prisoner cost from $60.10 to $40.37 a day — a savings of more than 30 percent. Buying the prison nine years early would allow the state to refinance and reduce the amount of interest paid on the facility, the state says.

The plan was approved by the state Legislature for fiscal year 2017 and is expected to be implemented sometime in the "next few months," according to Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder.

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Plan would include raises

If the purchase goes through as expected, the state would officially own the prison, but it would still be managed by the GEO Group.

As part of the plan, the state would offer $2 million to increase the salaries of the GEO Group workers. Keely Varvel, chief of staff for the Arizona House Democrats, pointed us to page 18 of the proposed purchase plan, which says that $2 million is intended "to increase starting salaries for correctional officers and improve retention."

But there’s a big caveat: The $2 million in annual expenses would be offset by the $8 million in annual savings the state would incur for buying the prison.

Pablo Paez, a spokesman for the GEO Group, called the Democrats’ claim an "unfair characterization." He said the proposal allows for "significant savings for taxpayers overall," while providing additional resources for staff wages. In essence, Paez said, Democrats are focusing on one side of the ledger -- money spent increasing salaries -- while ignoring the larger cost savings.

The average salary for a state correctional officer is $36,800. Under this plan, Kingman correctional officers would see a 13 percent raise, from $29,453 to an average salary of $33,300. That’s still less than the state average and well under the national average of $45,320, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman with Ducey’s office, said the overall plan, besides saving money, allows the state to "invest in ensuring public safety."

Our ruling

Arizona House Democrats said, "Gov. Ducey wants to use public, taxpayer dollars to increase the salaries of private prison guards."

That’s literally accurate.

The state contracts with GEO Group to manage the Kingman prison in question, but GEO pays its correctional officers. And if the state purchases Kingman, it would use $2 million for raises for the prison staff.

The major caveat is those raises would be more-than-offset by money the state says it will save with the purchase of the Kingman facility.

We rate the claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Arizona House Democrats, "Public schools not private prisons," June 20, 2016

Arizona Department of Corrections, "Operating budget," accessed June 24, 2016

GEO Group, "Locations," accessed June 24, 2016

ABC15, "Six staffers injured in Kingman prison altercation," July 1, 2015

Bureau of Labor Statistics, "May 2015 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates," accessed June 28, 2016

Arizona Legislature, "Joint Committee on Capital Review," accessed June 24, 2016

Interview with Arizona House Democrats Chief of Staff Keely Varvel, June 20, 2016

Interview with GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez, June 23, 2016

Interview with Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder, June 23, 2016

Interview with Doug Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato, June 27, 2016

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Arizona’s House Democrats claim governor wants to increase private prison salaries

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