Arizona Fugitives Draw Scrutiny to Private Prisons

By Beacon Staff

The search in the East Glacier area and along the Montana-Canada border for two fugitives – which worried and concerned many across northwest Montana over the last week – traces its beginnings back to one well-placed toss. At some point in the days leading up to July 30, Casslyn Mae Welch threw a pair of wire cutters over the perimeter fence of the Arizona State Prison in Kingman to her fiancée and cousin, John McCluskey.

On that Friday afternoon, McCluskey, along with fellow inmates Daniel Renwick and Tracy Province, hopped a fence near a dog kennel area, then used the wire cutters to cut through two perimeter fences, running into the desert wearing their bright orange prison uniforms.

Authorities at the prison, a medium-security facility privately run by the Utah-based company Management and Training Corp. (MTC), were not aware the men were missing until about 9 p.m. that night, with the local sheriff’s office and state corrections officials learning of the escape over the next several hours.

The following two weeks consisted of a massive, multi-state manhunt that gained the attention of the nation as fugitive sightings were reported, inexplicably, near national parks: first Yellowstone, then Glacier, then near the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas.

Renwick, who was serving two 22-year sentences for two counts of second-degree murder, was captured Aug. 1 after a shootout in western Colorado. When he was caught, officers found him with a rifle, 141 rounds of ammunition, nearly $3,000, marijuana and someone else’s California drivers license. Province, serving a life-sentence for murder and robbery (he was convicted of stabbing a laundromat owner more than 50 times), was caught Aug. 9 in Meeteetse, Wyo., where he had attended church a day earlier.

As of this writing, Welch and McCluskey, who was serving 15 years for attempted murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm, remain at large. Forensic evidence has also linked the escapees to the murder of an Oklahoma couple, whose charred remains were found on a remote ranch in eastern New Mexico.

In Arizona, the debate has shifted rapidly to questions of why it took prison officials so long to realize the inmates were missing, how they were able to escape in such a brazen fashion and why men with such violent histories were allowed in a medium-security prison in the first place. The Arizona Corrections Department director was quoted questioning how security at the Kingman facility could be so “lax” as to allow Welch to throw a pair of wire cutters over the fence. This week, the prison’s warden and a security official there resigned.

For Frank Smith, who lobbies across the country against for-profit prisons for the Private Corrections Working Group, the Kingman escape is yet one more example of the deep problems he sees with states contracting out inmates to private prisons – and his assessment of private prison companies and their facilities is blunt.

“They’re all incompetent, they’re all greedy; they really don’t care about anything but their bottom lines,” Smith said. “They’re really dangerous and immensely expensive.”

The debate over the effectiveness and economics of private prisons has been underway since the mid-1980s, when the industry began to emerge. In Arizona, a state where roughly a quarter of its 32,000-person inmate population is housed in private facilities, the criticism of for-profit prisons is likely to be exacerbated by the recent escape, and as the state takes bids for 5,000 more private prison beds.

But in Montana, any debate over private prisons is, at least in the short term, settled. The state Department of Corrections keeps roughly 550 men out of the 13,000 people in its system at the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby: Montana’s sole private prison. Built in 1999, the Shelby prison is owned and run by Corrections Corporation of America, a Tennessee-based publicly traded company. Shelby also has 96 beds for inmates awaiting federal trials.

Though lawmakers and corrections officials interviewed for this story expressed satisfaction with the Shelby prison, there are no plans by the state to develop any further private prisons here.

“One of the principles of the Schweitzer Administration is that we use government, rather than for-profit facilities,” Bob Anez, spokesman for the Corrections Department, said. “I don’t hear any talk about expanding the role of private prisons in Montana.”

That sentiment seems shared by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In 2005, a proposal to expand the Shelby correctional facility met stiff resistance from legislators uninterested in any further privatization of the state’s prison system. And the disastrous attempt by the town of Hardin to house inmates at a private facility city leaders pushed to build there has made it unlikely the prospect of new private correctional facilities will find a receptive audience in any town in Montana.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, serves as vice chairman of the judiciary committee and calls the issue of private prisons one of the few where he agrees with Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, that it should be a function of the government to arrest, try and house convicted criminals.

“I do not like private prisons,” Shockley said. “I don’t think it’s good public policy.”

Yet at the same time, he is satisfied with the role the Shelby facility fulfills in Montana.

“I know of no problems with Shelby,” Shockley said. “The Department of Corrections, in my mind, keeps a pretty close eye on them.”

The state keeps a full-time “contract monitor,” stationed at the Shelby prison, according to Patrick Smith, who oversees where inmates serve their sentences as the contract placement bureau chief for the state Department of Corrections.

“We think that’s the best way to do it, is to have someone on the inside all the time,” Smith said. “It helps little problems from turning into big problems.”

Any inmate entering the Montana State Prison system spends time at the Diagnostic Intake Unit on the campus of the Deer Lodge prison. All women go to the prison in Billings, but men are evaluated based on mental health, medical health and a number of other factors, including treatments recommended by the court, Smith said.

“Not all the facilities provide all the treatments that are needed,” he added. “Shelby provides most of the things that we have available here (in Deer Lodge).”

Maximum security inmates and those requiring a period of administrative segregation, also known as “solitary,” remain at Deer Lodge. But Shelby accepts minimum and medium security, a small number of administrative segregation inmates and “close custody,” – which means the highest-level prisoner allowed in general population. Smith may also assign inmates to the different facilities in order to separate, for example, an inmate who testified against another.

At the end of its 20-year contract, Smith said the state could have an option to buy the Shelby prison, or purchase it and contract the management out to CCA.

But until then, Smith believes the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Shelby is working well as a part of the state prison system: “We haven’t had any escapes – you know, knock on wood.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.