Patton, other top Arizona corrections officials and lawmakers have argued 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 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In 2012, the Arizona Legislature, under pressure from private-prison operators, repealed the law that required the Corrections Department to conduct a state and private cost comparison, which had occurred since fiscal 1995.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 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.
Private prison growth
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, GEO Group Inc. and Management & Training Corp. 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.
Career in corrections
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 his 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.
At 19, he was married and the next year, 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 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. “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.