A portion of Wednesday’s contentious debate in the governor’s race swirled around one issue that has touched Rim Country — the state’s decision to house violent criminals in a private prison in Kingman built for medium security inmates.
Democrat Terry Goddard hit Gov. Republican Jan Brewer hard for allowing the transfer of 400 violent criminals to the private prison and her failure to act quickly to protect the public.
The exchange about private prisons came amid a debate dominated by disagreements about how to seal the state’s border with Mexico and how to stimulate the economy and deal with the state’s budget.
Goddard called the lapse in security and the decision to house 117 murderers in such an insecure private facility a major blunder. “They strolled out of that prison and you still haven’t done what you need to do.”
Brewer shot back, “it was a terrible situation. We don’t deny that. Unfortunately, it was human error and has been resolved. The private prisons were put in place years ago and they were revived again in 2005. Terry Goddard (as attorney general) signed off on those classification to allow those classified prisoners to go into the prison.”
Goddard strenuously denied that as attorney general he’d had any role in assigning violent criminals to the Kingman facility.
Brewer’s aggressive response to Goddard’s thrust on private prisons stood in contrast to her fumbled opening statement, during which she appeared to lose her concentration and ended up groping for her next words for an agonizing 10 seconds.
Throughout the debate the two candidates hammered away at one another.
The debate spawned national headlines when Gov. Brewer during her opening statement froze — staring speechless at her notes for more than 10 seconds as the remorseless cameras continued to run. She recovered her poise and suffered no further lapses for the rest of the debate, until confronted by a media crowd as she left.
During the debate, Goddard said Brewer hurt the state’s reputation by asserting that drug cartels had left headless bodies in Arizona along the border. He challenged her to retract her statement, but she ignored that demand and countered with a demand that he renounce the support of labor unions that have called for a boycott of Arizona due to the passage of SB 1070.
When reporters asked her to explain her statement she again froze, remarked it had been an “interesting debate” and abruptly left without responding to the questions.
Border security dominated the debate, along with Goddard’s effort to shift the focus to job creation and budget deficits. Months ago Brewer was languishing in the polls with a 41 percent job approval rating and two strong primary opponents. Then she signed SB 1070.
Brewer’s popularity immediately soared and recent polls put her at perhaps 57 percent, with a 20 percent lead over Goddard.
Goddard, and other candidates trailing the popular Brewer in the polls, libertarian Barry Hess and Green Party candidate Larry Gist said SB 1070 was a distraction from the vital economic issues facing voters, especially because the measure won’t do anything to actually prevent people from crossing the border illegally.
Brewer insisted that SB 1070 would make it possible to seal the border and therefore eliminate all the problems associated with illegal immigration.
But the private prisons issue had the most direct connection to Rim Country. More than a month ago, a Tonto Basin woman tossed a pair of wire cutters over the apparently unguarded fence and then helped three convicts escape — two of them convicted murderers. Casslyn Welch then spent several weeks on the run with her cousin/fiance John McCluskey, before their capture at a campground in the White Mountains.
Police say the fugitives killed two people in New Mexico after their escape.
In response to a question by the moderator, Gov. Brewer said that she had dealt with the situation decisively. “The bottom line is that I moved forward with a top-to-bottom investigation of what took place there.
“Determined that it was human error. And moved forward to get those people replaced.
“I would like to commend all law enforcement for the tragedy that took place. The people up there were able to get McCluskey and Welch arrested without incident.”
Goddard, who signed off on the transfer of prisoners, focused on the decision to put violent criminals in a prison designed for low-risk offenders.
“There was no increase in security. No increase in spending and 117 of those inmates were murderers. There was no information given to the sheriff of Mohave County or to the Kingman Police Department that they suddenly had these dangerous persons in their midst.
“Before the escape, the Department of Corrections did an audit and said it found only minor problems.
“After the escape, they went in and found an absolute meltdown — with 89 false alarms within 16 hours of the escape, a brick right up next to the door that was used to prop it open, guards gone from their shifts for 9 to 20 minutes.”
Brewer ignored the specific allegations and shot back that “Terry Goddard signed off on those classifications to allow those classified prisoners to go into the prison.”
“That’s not true,” said Goddard.
“That was done without any public hearing, without any oversight,” continued Brewer.
“Murderers were moved to a facility designed for drunk drivers, which your administration gave a clean bill of health: Everything’s fine. Obviously, everything was not fine. The escape was a month ago and you still have not done what you need to do.”
“You signed off on it,” persisted Brewer.
“That had nothing to do with the transfer of the prisoners,” said Goddard.