NAACP lawsuit targets Arizona private prisons, accuses state of practicing slavery
A federal lawsuit filed against the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry accuses the state of practicing slavery through its use of private prisons.
Five inmates and the NAACP filed the class-action lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court in Arizona.
The lawsuit claims Arizona is practicing slavery by sending inmates to private prisons to "generate revenues and profits for the monetary benefit of corporate owners, shareholders and executive management."
The state corrections department contracts with six private facilities. As of Tuesday, 7,740 inmates were incarcerated in private facilities out of the overall state prison population of 40,547.
Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said he could not comment on pending litigation. The governor's focus when it comes to Arizona correctional programs "has been on providing second chances," Ptak said.
"We want to see those serving their time have every opportunity to reenter society successfully," Ptak said. "We've implemented many programs that provide job training, drug rehabilitation, counseling and more."
The three private prison companies operating in the state also pushed back.
Issa Arnita, a spokesman for Management and Training Corporation, told The Republic that the lawsuits claims are "blatantly false and slanderous." He said the company has provided states and the federal government performance-based correctional services for decades.
"Our focus on effective rehabilitation programs has helped people overcome addiction, learn problem-solving skills, participate in faith-based programs, and obtain their GED," he said.
"So, it’s just the opposite — we’ve seen thousands of men and women take advantage of evidence-based programs we provide to make lasting changes in their lives."
The attorneys said in a statement their goal is to place the issue of private incarceration before the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the attorneys for the inmates and the NAACP is Thomas Zlaket, former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
John Dacey, executive director of Abolish Private Prisons, said they hope the nation's highest court will declare private prisons unconstitutional before a majority of states rely on them.
The lawsuit was filed the same week as Juneteenth, which celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation. On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger informed people in Galveston, Texas, that enslaved African Americans were free, two years after the signing of the proclamation.
Attorneys told The Arizona Republic it was a coincidence that the lawsuit was filed this week, on Monday.
For-profit model called into question
Attorneys for the inmates and the NAACP claim the state is violating constitutional rights by enforcing slavery and cruel and unusual punishment, and depriving them of due process.
The Arizona State Conference for the NAACP's mission, in part, is to reduce mass incarceration and the criminal justice system's disproportionate impact on people of color
A May report by the Department of Corrections' reflected the NAACP's concerns. People of color made up more than 58% of the overall Arizona prison population. However, the five named plaintiffs in this week's lawsuit are white.
“We are proud to be plaintiffs and represent the thousands of NAACP members here and across the country — past, present, and future — who fought for freedom and who will live to see its fruits,” Charles Fanniel, executive director of the Arizona state conference of the NAACP, said in a statement.
“Using a person’s incarceration to generate corporate profits is a form of slavery," Dacey said in a statement. “A profit-motivated criminal justice system also conflicts with individual rights that are protected by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution.”
He said the business model encourages incarceration of more people for longer terms.
David Shinn, director of the state corrections department, is accused of viewing inmates as "property," according to the lawsuit. The attorneys claim in his role, Shinn is degrading the human dignity of each inmate by making a profit.
The state is granting the private prisons full power over the inmates and "the fruits of prisoners' economic value and labor," according to the lawsuit.
The attorneys argue the private prisons have a financial disadvantage when inmates are released but can receive profit by their incarceration. The lawsuit said the facilities have created biased administrators and have become similar to "slave jails," also known as convict leasing.
After the end of the Civil War, convict leasing was practiced in southern states. States leased inmates to companies and plantations. Inmates received little earnings, unlike the states, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
When the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, it prohibited slavery and involuntarily servitude. However, it exempted people who were convicted of crimes.
The issue of paying inmates in Arizona's public prisons came up at the state Capitol this year.
Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, introduced a bill that would raise the minimum wage for inmates who work jobs through Arizona Correctional Industries. The bill did not get a hearing.
Who operates the facilities?
Arizona's private prisons are operated by three companies, GEO Group, CoreCivic Inc. and Management and Training Corporation.
The three companies incarcerate more than 90% of inmates in private prisons in the U.S., according to the attorneys filing the suit.
Here's where the three operate in Arizona:
All three companies are members of a trade group called Day 1 Alliance. Alexandra Wilkes, the group's spokesperson told The Republic the allegations in the lawsuit are wrong.
"The reason governments first began utilizing public-private partnerships in the 1980s was to address unsafe and unconstitutional conditions in the public correctional system — including severe prison overcrowding and aging facilities that were endangering the lives of incarcerated men and women," she said in a statement.
Wilkes said private sector contractors have partnered with governments led by Democrats and Republicans.
"The notion that they would somehow be engaged in the activity this lawsuit alleges is a terrible smear," she said.
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