COMMUNITY DEBATES PRISON - The Explorer: Import

COMMUNITY DEBATES PRISON

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Posted: Wednesday, August 6, 2003 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Special interests groups representing law enforcement unions, women's issues, prisoners' rights, "students against sweatshops" and a woman who held a sign that simply said "Lesbians Against Prisons" were among those who turned out July 23 for the boisterous demonstration against the 3,200-bed women's prison proposed north of Marana.

And while the opposition groups have the lobbyists, money, members and organizational experience to get their voices heard by the lawmakers who will primarily determine if the prison is built, there's also plenty of anger coming from the normally quiet neighborhoods of the Northwest about the proposal.

"I'll fight this thing with everything I've got," said Christina Davis, a businesswoman living near the Pinal Air Park where three companies are bidding to build what would be the nation's largest privatized prison for women. "I'm not one of those people who are against prisons or for prisoner's rights. People who break the law need to be locked up. But why here? People have lives built here and this thing is just bad for the community in general. Most of all, I just don't want to raise my grandchildren next to a prison."

Davis's sentiments are being echoed by others in the community who are raising "quality of life" concerns that question the safety of private prisons and cite the possibility their property values will plummet.

Rep. Jennifer Burns, a Republican state legislator from Marana who represents District 25 where the prison may be built, said opinions coming into her office from constituents are about evenly split for and against the prison - but those opposed "are really, really against it."

"There's certainly people who are looking at the economic benefits, but many people are very adamant against the whole concept of a private prison of this size. I understand their concern," Burns said.

Her divided constituency, her own concerns over privatization and the growing population in Arizona's overcrowded prisons has prevented Burns from staking out a formal position yet, she said.

"We're at the point of having people in prison housed in tents. As bad as private prisons may be, they're still better than tents," Burns said.

Officials with ADC said as of last month, the state's prisons were holding more than 4,250 prisoners above capacity.

Rep. Manny Alvarez, a Democrat from Elfrida representing District 25, said his position is staked and it's in firm opposition to private prisons - whether it's north of Marana or anywhere else in the state.

"I had dealings with private prisons when I worked for the (Arizona) Department of Economic Security and they were not good dealings. It's a bad idea to use corporations that are primarily interested in profits to run your prisons," Alvarez said. "I'm dead set against it."

Legislators, and the special interest groups and citizens that garner lawmakers' ears, will play an important role in determining whether the state awards the prison contract to any of the three companies vying to build it.

Prison overcrowding has become such a crucial issue that Gov. Janet Napolitano is widely expected to call the legislature into special session this fall to deal with it along with mandatory sentencing laws and other corrections-related matters.

Another factor coming into play is Napolitano's July 1 appointment of Dora Schriro to head the state's correction department.

Schriro, who previously oversaw Missouri's penal system, has built a reputation for reducing recidivism and placing more emphasis on rehabilitation than incarceration, Burns said. "There's a lot of things at play in the legislature, the new director and with the governor, that could effect the outcome of the women's prison," Burns said.

Rep. Ted Downing, a District 28 Democrat from Tucson is proposing an alternative to the "private prison scheme" that he claims will ultimately cost the already deficit-ridden state more than $1 billion over the next 20 years.

"Let's assume we place half the female inmates who are non-violent under intense probation for 20 years - and that is intense - at a cost of $5,000 per year. Arizona would spend $121 million instead of $486 million," Downing said to enthusiastic cheers at the public hearing in Marana last week. "I ask Arizona citizens: Do you really feel you get a 400 to 500 percent increase in public safety by spending that extra $365 million? What improvements in health, education or public safety need $365 million? From my perspective, it's time we rethink this proposal."

One of the voices legislators are sure to hear from is that of Caroline Isaacs, director of the Tucson chapter of the American Friends Services Committee. For months, the Quaker group that advocates on behalf of prison issues has been compiling dossiers on the three companies bidding for the women's prison contract and marshaling forces to oppose private prisons in the state.

"It's a monstrous experiment with women's lives at stake," Isaacs said during an interview earlier this month. "No one has ever tried to operate a private prison of this magnitude. None of the companies involved have any experience running an operation of this size."

Isaacs characterizes the proposal for the 3,200-bed facility as an untried "super prison" concept that if built, will be 50 percent larger than any state-run facility and three times larger than any privately-run prison.

"And why a women's prison? A full 77 percent of women in Arizona's prisons are non-violent offenders. These are low-risk inmates who are in for crimes like minor drug offenses and forgery. With the state's budget shortfall, wouldn't it be more reasonable to look at alternatives for them rather than sending millions to a private corporation?" Isaacs said.

Isaacs' organization has compiled a litany of failings by the three companies seeking to build the women's prison. Taken mostly from newspaper articles, the AFSC's corporate "rap sheets" document mismanagement, escapes and assaults in private prisons across the nation.

"They're priority is profit, not safe prisons," Isaacs said.

James Kimble, ADC's bureau administrator for private prison operations, said Arizona keeps tabs on privatized prisons by regular inspections and installing ADC administrators directly at the private prisons to oversee the companies' performance.

"We also have pretty stringent laws and regulations that govern private prisons. For instance, it's mandated that the companies have to provide the same or better service as ADC and they have to do it cheaper than we can," Kimble said.

Kimble points to a 2001 Arizona Auditor General report that found Arizona's privately-run prisons were performing well and recommended the Department of Corrections begin planning for expansion.

The private prisons cost the states $20.9 million to operate in 2001, or about $5 million less than what three conventional state-operated prisons would have cost, according to the audit report.

But Arizona has also had its share of bad experiences with private prisons, most recently after the state shipped almost 350 inmates to CSC's facility in Newton,Texas. Angry at being removed from relatives and loved ones in Arizona, 82 of the prisoners rioted earlier this year and reportedly caused damage that cost ADC more than $415,000.

"The Newton situation was bad, but in all fairness, the company has taken steps to correct the problem and it's been performing well since then," Kimble said.

Locally, privatized prisons also started off badly. Construction of the the current Marana prison was shut down May 4, 1994 after the town pulled the contractor's building permits in a dispute with ADC over what types of inmates would be housed there.

Construction resumed after the town council reached an agreement with ADC and Management and Training that only DUI and drug offenders would be incarcerated in Marana. The agreement also stipulated that the prison could not be converted into a medium or maximum security prison.

The first state inspection of the 460-bed Marana Community Correctional Treatment Facility in 1995 declared "almost literally everything that could go wrong has." The facility was criticized for a turnover rate that saw four wardens in 10 months and a "generally haphazard approach to management."

Gil Lewis, who became warden of the Marana facility in 1996, said his prison has not had any major problems since the initial turmoil eight years ago. Periodic inspections of the Marana prison's state audits over the last four years by the Northwest EXPLORER confirmed Lewis's assertion.

"We've never had an escape, we consistently perform well on our state inspections, and we contribute to the community," Lewis said. "Proof that this is a good facility is that hardly anyone in Marana even knows we're here."

PRISON WILL BRING JOBS, OFFICIALS SAY

By Patrick Cavanaugh

Overshadowing the proposal to place a 3,200 bed private women's prison north of Marana is the fact that prison overcrowding in Arizona is rapidly approaching crisis proportions and the cash-strapped state does not have money readily available to pay for the construction and operation of new prisons, corrections officials and some legislators say.

But locally, proponents of the prison see benefits as well: The town of Marana has already begun preliminary discussions to annex the prison if it's built near the town in order to reap the tax revenue and jobs it will create. Pima County is looking at pulling in as much as $4 million from the sale of surplus land and could gain valuable acres southeast of Tucson to add to its proposed Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan if the prison is constructed in the county.

"Prisons are a clean industry that provide jobs and economic opportunities to the community," said Mike Murphy, marketing director for Management and Training Corp. at a public hearing in Marana July 23. "We're committed to running a safe, well-run facility."

Murphy said the prison, if constructed by his company, would bring with it 500 to 600 corrections jobs that would on average pay a starting wage of more than $24,000 per year plus benefits. Companies providing goods and service for the massive prison would account for another couple of hundred jobs.

Management and Training Corp. estimates it would spend $153 million for the facility and pay more than $1 million annually in taxes.

Factoring prison related jobs and contractors, the company estimates it would provide an annual payroll of $30 million and spend as much as $4 million on local purchases as the prison begins construction.

"We're going to make a commitment to spend as much of that money in the local community as possible," Murphy said.

Jack Yancick, a Marana resident and one of only a handful of people who spoke in favor of the prison at the raucous hearing last week, said the prison would provide recession-proof industry for the community and pleaded for detractors not to reject the proposal out of hand.

"The money that the prison will spend is tremendous, and all of that will come into this town," Yancick said. "Think long and hard about the benefits."

But for Marana and Pima County to hit the perceived economic jackpot, a number of hurdles have to cleared first. Right out of the blocks, Management and Training has to land the contract.

The company, based in Centerville, Utah, is only one of three private prison contractors vying to build the facility. MTC currently operates the 460-bed Marana Community Correctional Treatment Facility, 12610 W. Silverbell Road, in Marana and is the only one of the companies proposing to build the facility in Pima County. The prison would be located south of the Pinal Air Park, only a few hundred feet from the Pinal county line and about three miles north of Marana.

Correctional Services Corp., headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., and Cornell Companies, based in Houston, have submitted bids to build the prison at the Pinal Air Park on the Pinal county side of the line.

CSC has also proposed an alternate site in Mobile, south of Phoenix, that several people close to the bidding process characterized as being unlikely to prevail in the bidding process.

The Arizona Department of Corrections is expected to announce in September which company has won the bid. ADC officials say there's also the slight possibility that none of the companies will meet the state's criteria for the prison and the procurement process may begin again from scratch.

Mike Carlier, a northwest land broker who is representing MTC in negotiations to purchase the 294-acres of land from Pima County for the prison, said he believes MTC has the best shot to land the bid.

"Here, the company would own the land outright and in Pinal, there's some lease-hold issues. The Pima County site has the needed infrastructure and there's very few existing homes in the area. It really is emerging as the ideal location and it's getting support from the local governments," Carlier said in an interview.

Carlier said opponents of the Pima County site should also consider the prison will more than likely land at the Pinal Air Park no matter which company gets the contract, and only the county line that bisects the Air Park will determine who reaps the economic windfall.

"If it lands in Pinal County, you still have the proximity of the prison to Marana and Tucson. You just don't get the economic benefits," Carlier said.

MTC had initially offered Pima County $6,000 per acre, but in the course of negotiations the price has risen to $10,000 per acre and now includes discussion of MTC purchasing land near Cienega Creek southeast of Tucson that it would give to the county to use in its conservation efforts. The estimated cost to MTC for purchasing the Pinal Air Park property is now running about $4 million, Carlier said.

The county purchased the land south of the air park in the mid 1980s for the construction of a waste water treatment plant. A sewage plant north of Marana is targeted for expansion and the property south of the air park is now surplus land.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry was on vacation in Guam last week and could not be reached for comment.

Deputy Pima County Administrator John Bernal said he knew little about the specifics of the possible land sale and Huckelberry had been exclusively handling details of the negotiations.

Bernal said Huckelberry had recently ordered the county's real estate department to gather information about the Pinal Air Park-area property, but he believed any negotiations seemed to "still be in the preliminary phase."

Sharon Bronson, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors who also represents District 3 in which the prison may be located, said in a phone interview the county's negotiations with MTC came as an unpleasant surprise to her.

Although Bronson is a driving force behind the county's efforts to obtain open space for its conservation plan, she said she has "deep reservations" about the concept of such a large corporate-run prison in her district.

"In the short and long term, if this venture's benefits to our community are greater than its costs, there should be no need to sweeten the deal through a land swap that benefit the conservation land system as identified in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan," Bronson said in an e-mail message following the interview.

Marana, the closest municipality to the three proposed Pinal Air Park sites, is interested in the economic benefits and "would definitely consider exploring the possibility of annexation regardless of which side of the county line the prison would fall on," said Mike Reuwsaat, who takes over as the town's manager Aug. 1.

Municipalities can annex across county lines and "that's an option we're looking at if it ends up in Pinal County," Reuwsaat said.

In addition to increased revenue from the state and federal governments that would come with Marana's population of 16,000 being increased by the potential 3,200 women prisoners, the town would also gain income generated by its three percent construction sales tax and two percent retail sales tax, as well as see badly needed jobs created in what is essentially a bedroom community to Tucson.

But despite the economic benefits, having a measure of control over the prison's operations would be the primary reason for annexation, Reuwsaat said.

"There's a lot of issues with prisons, both good and bad. Right now, things are still in the early stages and we don't have all the particulars on the prison and opinion is divided on the benefits. But if the prison is built, it's going to be close to Marana, and we're definitely going to want a voice in what goes on out there," Reuwsaat said

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