FLORENCE, Ariz. - One of the newest residents on Arizona's death row, a convicted serial killer named Dale Hausner, poked his head up from his television to look at several visitors strolling by, each of whom wore face masks and vests to protect against the sharp homemade objects that often are propelled from the cells of the condemned.
It is a dangerous place to patrol, and Arizona spends $4.7 million each year to house inmates like Mr. Hausner in a super-maximum-security prison. But in a first in the criminal justice world, the state's death row inmates could become the responsibility of a private company.
State officials will soon seek bids from private companies for 9 of the state's 10 prison complexes that house roughly 40,000 inmates, including the 127 here on death row. It is the first effort by a state to put its entire prison system under private control.
The privatization effort, both in its breadth and its financial goals, demonstrates what states around the country - broke, desperate and often overburdened with prisoners and their associated costs - are willing to do to balance the books. Arizona officials hope the effort will put a $100 million dent in the state's roughly $2 billion budget shortfall.
"Let's not kid ourselves," said State Representative Andy Biggs, a Republican who supports private prisons. "If we were not in this economic environment, I don't think we'd be talking about this with the same sense of urgency."
Private prison companies generally build facilities for a state, then charge them per prisoner to run them. But under the Arizona legislation, a vendor would pay $100 million up front to operate one or more prison complexes. Assuming the company could operate the prisons more cheaply or efficiently than the state, any savings would be equally divided between the state and the private firm.
The privatization move has raised questions - including among some people who work for private prison companies - about the private sector's ability to handle the state's most hardened criminals. While executions would still be performed by the state, officials said, the Department of Corrections would relinquish all other day-to-day operations to the private operator and pay a per-diem fee for each prisoner.
"I would not want to be the warden of death row," said Todd Thomas, the warden of a prison in Eloy, Ariz., run by the Corrections Corporation of America. The company, the country's largest private prison operator, has six prisons in Arizona with inmates from other states.
"That's not to say we couldn't," Mr. Thomas said. "But the liability is too great. I don't think any private entity would ever want to do that."
James Austin, a co-author of a Department of Justice study in 2001 on prison privatization and president of the JFA Institute, a corrections consulting firm, said private companies tended to oversee minimum- and medium-security inmates and had little experience with the most dangerous prisoners.
"As for death row," Mr. Austin said, "it is a very visible entity, and if something bad happens there, you will have a pretty big news story for the Legislature and governor to explain."
Arizona is no stranger to private prisons or, for that matter, aggressive privatization efforts (recently, the state put up for sale several government buildings housing executive branch offices in Phoenix). Nearly 30 percent of the state's prisoners are being held in prisons operated by private companies outside the state's 10 complexes.
In addition, other states, including Alaska and Hawaii, have contracts with private companies like Corrections Corporation of America to house their prisoners in Arizona.
For advocates of prison privatization, the push here breathes a bit of life into a movement that has been on the decline across the country as cost savings from prison privatizations have often failed to materialize, corrections officers unions have resisted the efforts and high-profile problems in privately run facilities have drawn unwanted publicity
"We have private prisons in Arizona already, and we are very happy with the performance and the savings we get from them," said Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and an architect of the new legislation authorizing the privatization. "I think that they are the future of corrections in Arizona."
Under the legislation, any bidder would have to take an entire complex - many of them mazes of multiple levels of security risks and complexity - and would not be permitted to pick off the cheapest or easiest buildings and inmates. The state also wants to privatize prisoners' medical care.
Louise Grant, a spokeswoman for Corrections Corporation of America, said the high-security prisoners would be well within the company's management capabilities. "We expect we will be there to make a proposal to the state" for at least some of its complexes up for bid, Ms. Grant said.
In pure financial terms, it is not clear how well the state would make out with the privatization. The 2001 study for the Department of Justice found that private prisons saved most states little money (there has been no equivalent study since). Indeed, many states, struggling to keep up with the cost of corrections, have closed prisons when possible, and sought changes in sentencing to reduce crowding in the last two years.
As tough sentencing laws and the ensuing increase in prisoners began to press on state resources in the 1980s, private prison companies attracted some states with promises of lower costs. The private prison boom lasted into the 1990s. Throughout the years, there have been high-profile riots, escapes and other violent incidents. The companies also do not generally provide the same wages and benefits as states, which has resulted in resistance from unions and concerns that the private prisons attract less-qualified workers.
Then the federal government stepped in, with a surge of new immigrant prisoners, and began to contract with the private companies. The number of federal prisoners in private prisons in the United States has more than doubled, to 32,712 in 2008 from 15,524 in 2000. The number of state prisoners in privately run prisons has increased to 93,500 from 75,000 in that time.
With bad economic times again driving many decisions about state resources, other states are sure to watch Arizona's experiment closely.
"There simply isn't the money to keep these people incarcerated, and the alternative is to free many of them or lower cost," said Ron Utt, a senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group whose work for privatization was cited by one Arizona lawmaker.
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