Feb. 9, 2005 - A proposal to adjust inmate criteria to allow more serious offenders into the privately-run state prison in Marana could be the first step toward an expansion, roughly doubling the size of the current facility, if approved.
For the past several months, Management and Training Corp., which owns and operates the Marana Community Correctional Treatment Facility, has involved itself in discussions with town officials regarding changes to its current use permit, which restricts the inmate pool to allow only the two lowest level offenders.
Warden Lori Lieder addressed the town council during a study session in January, explaining how allowing nonviolent property crime offenders would enable the prison to fill 50 vacant beds.
The facility houses 450 inmates, but also has 50 vacant emergency beds available. The Arizona Department of Corrections could fill the vacancies if the town allowed the changes, Lieder said. The change would allow inmates convicted of nonviolent theft and fraud.
However, town records indicate that MTC hopes to fill more than the 50 beds it mentioned during the public meeting.
Several letters sent from MTC officials to Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat detail plans to add at least 450 beds, turning the prison into a 900-bed facility. Under the current agreements with Marana, MTC already has the power to expand the facility without town approval, but the reclassification allowing a much larger pool of inmates would make filling those beds easier.
"This is what we do as an industry - we're always looking at more bed spaces," said Mike Murphy, MTC's vice president of corrections marketing. "If the department gave us another 450 beds, we could build onto the facility."
Murphy said the prison already could accommodate 520 beds without physically building onto the facility. But, if there's a need in the state, MTC wants to be ready to expand.
"We just want to be in a position to take a different criteria of inmates in the event the state's needs change," Murphy said. "All we're trying to do is maximize our business objectives out there."
In a Sept. 17 letter sent to Reuwsaat, Murphy sought the town manager's assistance on how to "move forward" with the expansion without overwhelming the council.
"Who on council would or could act as a champion on this project?" he wrote, also asking: "Who could we hire locally to assist me in lobbying council?"
Other letters sent to Reuwsaat from MTC officials detail lengthy plans for a federal prison, which hasn't been given the same public attention. MTC admitted last week it has been site shopping for a venue for a 115,000-square-foot U.S. Marshal Service facility that would include 500 to 600 beds. Marana was a top choice, but the town decided against the idea, as did Benson, Murphy said.
Reuwsaat wrote in a letter to Murphy that the federal facility was "not received well" and suggested MTC look into an area closer to the federal courthouse in Tucson.
Murphy said MTC ceased efforts on the project due to lack of interest. MTC already operates two similar facilities in Raymondville, Texas, and Chaparral, N.M.
MTC is no stranger to growth. It currently is in the process of doubling the capacity of the Otero County Prison Facility in New Mexico. Also, the second phase of construction of a DUI facility in Kingman will expand it from 450 beds to 1,400 beds within the next several months.
Reuwsaat is expected to meet with MTC officials Feb. 9 to further discuss MTC's plans for Marana.
Town records show that Reuwsaat has met with MTC officials on several occasions during the course of the past several months. That includes a Sept. 13 meeting with Murphy to discuss the expansion and modification of the use permit.
According to town records, Murphy wrote a follow-up letter to Reuwsaat on Sept. 17 saying he spoke with ADOC and "they now want us to move forward on the 500 bed expansion and the modification of the existing use permit/classification criteria."
State prison officials last week said they were unaware of talks to expand the prison and would not comment about whether there is a need for more beds. Murphy later said ADOC recently changed its mind about expanding the facility, but that demand could change again.
Reuwsaat said last week that he had spoken with ADOC and it was determined that the 50 vacant beds in the prison are emergency beds only, and he was unsure why MTC is taking any course of action.
"When I evaluate MTC's request, given the information above, I am unclear as to why we are pursuing a change in the eligibility criteria," Reuwsaat wrote to MTC officials.
MTC officials said they met with ADOC Deputy Director Gary Phelps on Dec. 21 and confirmed the department is not opposed to their request for an adjustment to the use permit, as long as it does not increase the risk factors to the community.
MTC postponed a November study session with the town council to first discuss the adjustment with ADOC prior to its presentation to the town. Reuwsaat said the idea of expanding the Marana prison has been thrown around for at least four years, both formally and informally. If such an expansion does not add a risk to the community, he said, "then I think you can move to second base."
"It has operated in Marana without any problems in its history," he said. "And there hasn't proved to be any risk with it ever to our population."
Eric Achen, a land development consultant for Boomer Industries Inc., has been contracted by MTC to persuade the council to allow the use permit modification. He said a reclassification does not change the institutional risk score, but will contribute positively to the community and the local economy.
According to plans presented to the council, MTC is requesting an exemption from administrative exclusions in the current use permit for the facility to allow housing to any inmate committed to and approved by ADOC with a substance abuse offense. However, it will exclude murderers, child molesters, kidnappers, inmates with a history of escape and inmates with a history of sex offenses.
"Basically what we're doing is just trying to expand the group of inmates eligible to come to Marana for substance abuse treatment," Lieder said. "The criteria as it stands is very restrictive."
Lieder said Class 2 and 3 property offenses, which include nonviolent theft and fraud, would be allowed as well as certain felony and violent crimes where an inmate has earned credit for good behavior.
The time frame in which prisoners are allowed into the Marana facility also is a concern for Lieder. Currently, inmates may not enter the prison unless they have less than 12 months remaining in their sentence, but no fewer than three months, leaving a small window of opportunity for MTC to grab new inmates.
"It's not just to fill space, it's just to offer flexibility to send more inmates through this program, to prepare the inmates to go out into the community," Lieder said.
Achen noted that the prison is geared toward training inmates to re-enter society with positive skills, rather than the skills they might pick up at another prison.
"If they can expand, they can fill up more beds and give a lot more people skills for going back into society," he said. " The inmates are going to come out regardless, so they may as well have skills and something they can build on."
Council member Ed Honea expressed concerns regarding the reclassification proposal during Lieder's appearance in January. Honea questioned whether the proposal goes along with the original intent when the prison was first approved about 12 years ago.
"When we approved the facility several years ago … citizens didn't want anybody in the facility that had perpetrated a crime with a knife, or a gun, or some kind of deadly weapon," Honea said.
Honea asked Lieder whether someone who held up a Circle K with a weapon would be eligible to enter the Marana prison.
Lieder said she couldn't give Honea a definitive answer because she does not control the inmates coming to her prison; the state determines those classifications.
"We're not looking to bring violent offenders here," Lieder said. "We're not looking to bring individuals that are a danger to the community."
Honea said he doesn't have a problem with "the guy on the street that made a couple mistakes and could be turned around," but doesn't want to see the prison start housing violent criminals.
"I think the whole council is opposed to changing the criteria to allow lesser restrictions," he said. "We just don't want to take a chance on somebody that's perpetrated a crime with a weapon."
Lieder said the ADOC, which oversees MTC's operations, has neither opposed nor supported its efforts so far. She previously worked for the department for 16 years before accepting her current position with MTC.
She noted that MTC facilities are based on rehabilitation and education. The Marana prison includes a 14-week intensive substance abuse program, which all inmates go through. They then go into a pre-release program and are taught various reading and computer skills.
Murphy said MTC has gotten a bad reputation because of the negative stereotypes of prisons, but facilities like the Marana prison contribute a lot to society.
"The facility is well-managed, but because it's a prison, the image is negative right off the bat," he said. "Every time you talk about prisons or jails, it's very controversial."