Prison Problems

The board of supes approves a private detention center—but the state hasn't yet approved the project

A 5,000-bed private-prison complex approved in July by the Pima County Board of Supervisors doesn't yet have the final approval it needs from the Arizona Department of Corrections to house Arizona prisoners.

The ADC put out a request for proposals last year for prison companies to provide 5,000 more beds in the state. According to ADC public-information officer Bill Lamoreaux, the ADC has received about five proposals thus far, including one from Corrections Corporation of America for a facility in Tucson. However, whatever is selected may have a configuration of perhaps 3,000 beds in Tucson, with 2,000 beds in another place—not all 5,000 beds in Tucson.

Lamoreaux said copies of the RFPs will not be available to the public until after the selection process is completed. He couldn't confirm when the state will make a final decision.

Supervisor Richard Elías, the lone vote against the private prison, said that even if CCA's proposal is rejected or only partially approved by the state, the company could still move forward with its 5,000-bed plan. He realized this, he said, when he asked a CCA rep during a public hearing if the prison would take only Arizona prisoners. The rep replied that CCA could accept prisoners from other states.

That didn't sit well with Elías, who cited the CCA-run Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Eloy as an example of the major problems that the corporation has had. Elías pointed out that there have been nine reported deaths of immigrant detainees in Eloy—and more immigrants have reportedly died in custody in Eloy than at any other facility in the country.

The supervisors' 4-1 vote allows a rezoning for a prison-type development on the property where CCA's proposed facility would be located, near the existing state-prison complex at 10000 S. Wilmot Road.

The 391-acres owned by South Wilmot Land Investors is south of the Arizona State Prison complex, and near a Tucson fire station and the Public Safety Academy. There are also residential areas nearby.

During the July public hearing, the CCA rep told supervisors that CCA would pay about $3.9 million in taxes every year, with $2 million going to Sunnyside Unified School District. Elías said job creation was also used as a reason to support the private-prison development.

It was a selling point that worked for the Southside Neighborhood Association Presidential Partnership (SNAP), a group that represents 35 neighborhood associations on Tucson's southside. A letter submitted to the supervisors by Yolanda Herrera, SNAP's president, expressed support of the CCA facility.

"The proposed facility would provide a significant economic contribution. ... Among these are the employment of up to 900 individuals, annual property taxes and the purchasing of local goods and services," Herrera wrote.

However, Elías said the argument for jobs just doesn't work for him.

"I'm all in favor of jobs for this community, but there are some jobs that people really shouldn't want," Elías said. "Not that correctional jobs are bad, but perhaps a private corporation that has such a bad record of protecting the safety of its prisoners is. Privatization is a plague on government in many ways. It seems like a smart move to make some money, but some industries don't lend themselves to privatization—(like) prisons and sewer systems."

Elías mentioned one of the latest private-prison controversies: three inmates who escaped from a private prison in Kingman two weeks after the supervisors' 4-1 vote. The escape has been used as an example of not only Gov. Jan Brewer's private-prison infatuation, but also private-prison security issues that have remained unaddressed.

The three escapees were incarcerated for murder. On Friday, July 30, they escaped from a private prison in Kingman operated by Management and Training Corp of Centerville, Utah. It was reported that the prison, which opened in 2004, was supposed to house only low-level and nonviolent offenders. The escapees evidently got out by cutting through a fence and kidnapping two truck drivers. The escapees forced the hostages to drive them for hours before finally releasing the drivers.

Attorney General Terry Goddard, the Democrat running for governor against Brewer, has accused Brewer and her administration of allowing too many convicted murderers to be housed at medium-security private prisons.

Steven Owen, CCA's director of public affairs, said via e-mail that his company looks at "the availability of a qualified employment pool, proximity to existing correctional facilities (i.e., zoning) and community support" before building a facility. "County officials directed CCA to the site in south Tucson given its proximity to an existing prison and their belief that a correctional facility was the most appropriate use for that area," Owen wrote.

Regarding security and safety, Owen wrote, "Safety and security have always been our priority and that of our government partners, who hold us accountable to high standards through strong oversight. That commitment and message have not and will not change."

The CCA plan will go before Elías and his fellow supervisors one more time, to follow up on different aspects of the project that CCA needed to modify in the site plan, according to county planner Janet Emel. She said there's no specific date set for the final action to go before the supervisors, but it could take place during a November meeting.