NORMAN — In Robert C. Patton, Oklahoma is getting a new corrections director from Arizona who is more than willing to use private prisons as a means to deal with inmate overcrowding.
“I’m a (prison) bed manager. I’ll tell the policy makers I need beds, and if I can convince them that I need beds, then it’s their jobs on whether it’s public or private,” said Patton, whose first day as Oklahoma Corrections Department director began Tuesday.
Patton’s position on private prisons is far different than that of Justin Jones, the former director who resigned in October following clashes with elected officials who wanted to put more inmates in private facilities.
The Oklahoma Board of Corrections last month approved a measure that allows the state to seek proposals from private prison companies to provide an additional 350 to 2,000 medium-security beds for state inmates.
Although Patton said he supports private prisons, he wouldn’t approve the privatization of current state-run facilities.
Patton, 50, spent nearly all three decades of his correctional career in Arizona, which has relied increasingly on private prisons to ease overcrowding. As the Arizona corrections department’s division director, Patton was the No. 3 person in charge of an agency with a $1 billion annual budget; he had oversight of 10 state prison complexes and six private prisons.
“Nothing happens in the prisons without the division director of operations knowing about it. It’s a very high pressure job,” said Doug Nick, an Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman. “He’s one of the most genuine and hard-working persons you will ever find.”
Arizona’s prisons collectively house more than 41,000 inmates, with one-sixth, or nearly 6,800 inmates, in private prisons. Arizona’s newest private facility, which can house up to 1,000 prisoners, began taking inmates in January in the rural community of Eloy, about 65 miles southeast of Phoenix.
The Grand Canyon state has about twice as many inmates as Oklahoma, although Oklahoma incarcerates more people per capita, according to several rankings. At the end of last year there were just more than 5,800 Oklahoma inmates in private prisons.
In Arizona, critics of private prisons contend the state has made those private prison operators rich by giving them guaranteed occupancy rates of 90 to 100 percent. That means even if the private prison beds are not filled, Arizona taxpayers are on the hook to pay for them. Oklahoma has similar contracts.
Caroline Isaacs, Arizona area program director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, said it isn’t coincidence that Oklahoma hired a prison chief from a state where there is a strong push for more private prisons.
“In Oklahoma, you had a corrections director who put his foot down and said private prisons don’t make sense,” said Isaacs, whose group opposes private prisons and acts as a government watchdog. “He (Jones) was a pain in the butt for the for-profit prisons … He was fairly outspoken about the problems in those facilities, and that is why they forced him out.”
Jones resigned last year after issues arose over whether corrections staff had been open about money in revolving funds and lawmakers rejected the agency’s budget request.
Jim Klein, a retired 20-year Arizona corrections officer who runs a website that advocates for prison guards, agreed that Patton will adopt the will of policy makers if they want more private prisons.
“Robert Patton is the perfect choice for Oklahoma if the governor is looking for a yes man,” Klein said.
Patton said he would adopt the same policy in Oklahoma that has worked in Arizona — that is, if policy makers want more private prisons, then it’s the director’s job “to make it work,” he said.
Patton added that the trend across the country is for states to use private prisons because they don’t have the capital to fund the construction of new facilities. In Arizona, private prisons also are required to turn the facility over to the state after 20 years of service.
Patton said in Oklahoma he only would support adding private prisons for minimum- and medium-security inmates, and he would hold them accountable.
He said that is exactly what occurred after three prisoners escaped from a medium-security private prison in northern Arizona in July 2010. The inmates then went on a crime spree that included the murders of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla., who were killed while traveling in New Mexico.
“The day the Haas family from Oklahoma was murdered was the toughest day in my correctional career,” Patton said. “I vowed from that day forward that it (escape) would never happen again and the proof is in the pudding. Arizona has set a model for accountability in private prisons, and it’s one of the things that attracted Oklahoma to me.”
Patton said following the Kingman escapes, the department installed new monitoring tools in private prisons.
“We admitted the shortfalls from day one. We vowed to fix those problems, and we have done that,” Patton said.
Patton, other top Arizona corrections officials and lawmakers have argued that private prisons are less costly to run than state-operated facilities, thereby saving taxpayers money.
However, an Arizona Corrections Department study found it was less expensive in 2008, 2009, and 2010, to house inmates in state-run medium-security facilities compared with similar in-state private facilities.
Oklahoma Corrections Department figures likewise show that it costs less to house medium- and minimum-security inmates in state-run prisons than in private ones.
In 2012, the Arizona Legislature, under pressure from private-prison operators, repealed the law that required the Corrections Department to conduct a state and private cost comparison, which had occurred since fiscal 1995.
As a result, no tool exists to determine if there is a cost savings for taxpayers. Arizona corrections officials have acknowledged that private prisons have lower costs because they only will take inmates with little to no health or mental health problems, which drives down their medical expenses. Oklahoma also keeps such inmates mainly in state-run prisons.
During his tenure in Arizona, Patton has seen firsthand the growth of private prisons.
Arizona’s first contract prison opened in southern Arizona near Tucson in October 1994, 10 months after a “truth in sentencing” law went into effect that dramatically increased prison sentences and the state’s inmate population.
Since fiscal 1995, the number of in-state private-prison inmates has grown from 273 to nearly 6,800. Arizona also contracted to house inmates with out-of-state private prisons from fiscal 2004 to 2010.
Arizona’s private prison operators are Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group Inc. and Management & Training Corp. The GEO Group and CCA also operate facilities in Oklahoma, along with Avalon Correctional Services.
“Private prisons are here to stay. Anybody who says differently doesn’t understand,” Patton said.
Patton was born in 1963 in Safford, a small, rural community in southeast Arizona, and spent most of his childhood there. He was the third of five children to a homemaker and an itinerant Baptist preacher who took odd jobs to support his family.
Patton said one of the biggest vices was “getting in a little bit of trouble for drag racing down Main Street.”
As a sophomore, his family moved to Friona, Texas, another small town, when he graduated and then went into the Navy.
After ending his military service, he became a state correctional officer in Safford.
“My career aspirations when I came to work for this department were to be a lieutenant before I retired,” Patton said. “With each promotion, I would see the person above me and I would say ‘I could do that job.’ And that is what has driven me.”
Patton exceeded his expectations during a 20-year career in which he moved around Arizona to work in various prison complexes until he eventually became a warden. He retired in September 2005 and receives a $36,737 annual pension from Arizona for his service. As Oklahoma’s corrections director, Patton will earn a $160,000 salary.
After retiring, Patton worked less than a year in Omaha, Neb., as the director of corrections for Douglas County. He returned to Arizona in June 2006 to become an administrator for the state Corrections Department.
By September 2009, Patton had become the department’s division director.
Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan said he was saddened to see Patton leave.
“He has served in multiple capacities in his years with this agency, starting as an officer working graveyard shift, advancing through the ranks, ultimately becoming the Division Director for Operations,” Ryan said, adding, “It’s a time-consuming and pressure-filled job, and Robert has done it exceptionally well.”
Patton said he’s never held another professional job outside of corrections, and he doesn’t plan on changing in the near future.
“It gets in your blood,” Patton said. “I told the governor that Oklahoma is my last job. I intend, good Lord willing, to be the Oklahoma director for 12 years, retire at 62, and come back to Arizona and enjoy my kids and grandkids and die as an old man.”
Craig Harris is a senior reporter for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism service that produces in-depth and investigative content on public-policy issues in the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.
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