Prisons define this town one hour north of Tucson--and money from those prisons may be the key to the town's renaissance

As far as Florences go, this isn't Firenze. After all, Pinal County is not Toscana. There is not much art here. There are two museums that include artifacts and items from the main industry in Florence--prisons--as well as tractors, plows and other farming implements from days gone by.

Downtown streets, even with Circle Ks that are separated only by a long football pass (the difference between the two: One serves alcohol), don't need night or even dusk to roll up, although police say Saturday nights are still good for fightin' and generating calls.

Still, there is plenty of intrigue and renaissance in Florence for the more than 5,200 Florentines who are free to move about town--and the nearly 12,000 residents who are not, assigned quarters in one of four Arizona Department of Corrections prisons, three private prisons or the Immigration and Naturalization Service's detention facility. Even the incarcerated are counted as Florence residents by the Census, and, more importantly, by the state that then doles out an average of $300 a head annually in state-shared revenue for residents.

"The majority of them are inside, but that is going to change," says Tom Rankin, the newly elected mayor, past member of the City Council and a retired police chief.

Florence has aggressively captured revenue from the privilege of housing the captured and convicted. It has milked annexations to include all prisons in its borders to increase shares of tax revenues. That helps offset Pinal County's high primary property-tax rate, because more than $4 million from state and federal sources is funneled into the city budget.

Rankin says Florence will continue its annexation policies, but with the goal of determining its future by establishing what types of development will occur, and where. For all its laid-back feeling--not unlike the tone of Murphy's Romance, the James Garner and Sally Field comedy that was shot in Florence and released in 1985--Florence is on the move.

Talks are well underway for a four-year college, an industrial park with non-polluting industry (prisons are clean), an expanded commercial area, a hospital and intensified planning on how the town will get enough water to support those developments.

"Growth is coming," says Rankin. "We need to protect the core of our city and the city limits."

Rankin, who had a part in Murphy's Romance, knows better than most the full role of government in Florence--what the city and county do, and what the state and feds do with their prisons.

He was among those who witnessed the 1992 gas chamber execution of Don Eugene Harding, a gruesome, violent, and long killing that ended Arizona's nearly 40-year hiatus from carrying out death penalties.

A chivalrous sort, Rankin provided a steadying arm for media witness Carla McClain, then with the Tucson Citizen, as she shook in response to Harding's violent strain. It provided McClain, a top medical reporter now with the Arizona Daily Star, with just enough comfort to allow her to stay and provide critical coverage of what she saw.

Rankin thought it was important enough to see what, ultimately, government can do to someone, but would never go back for another execution.

Prisons and those in them have long told Florence's story.

North of downtown, the INS facility is where the United States held members of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps after their capture during World War II. The population in the facility can be diverse, with former East Bloc Europeans, Cuban and Moskito Indians, who sought to leave Nicaragua for the United States. (Thoughtful planners included a type of garden with a pool for fish, the decorative type, at the INS facility. The fish were more than eye candy to some of the Moskito Indians, who raided the pond and ate them.)

Cubans, some from the infamous Mariel boatlift two dozen years ago, languished in Florence. They were in limbo, ineligible for release and unable to return. Their situation exposed more clearly than others the antipathy many Mexican Americans--including those in the civil rights and immigration-reform movement--had toward Cubans. It did not, however, stop local government from trying to "help" the Cubans. One of the more absurd efforts was carried out by several big mamas dispatched by the county extension office to teach the Cubans how to shop in supermarkets effectively and how to build a menu consisting of the four food groups.

There is an uneasy calm in Florence. Some inmates had grown so frustrated by the extended immigration detentions that they escaped, only to be rounded up in the surrounding harsh desert.

Arizona is in the prison import-export business. It ships prisoners to East Texas while allowing private prison operators like the Corrections Corporation of America to bring in out-of-state felons. Conditions deteriorated at CCA's Florence facility so badly a couple of years back that the Hawaiian prisoners seemed to be running the joint, according to a May 2003 Weekly story by Dave Maass.

Arriving from Tucson in the heart of Florence, with its sprawling state prison complex to the east, it is impossible to miss the Blue Mist Motel. It has served as media central during the early executions and those since that have generated attention. The Near Eastern couple who operate the motel are gracious, and it is always clean, but it cannot escape notoriety. It was at the Blue Mist that Robert Henry Moorman, then serving nine years to life, was given a 72-hour compassionate furlough in January 1984 to visit with his mother.

Compassion indeed. Moorman snapped. He strangled and stabbed his mother and then hacked her up into pieces that he disposed of in trash bins around town.

Moorman, who celebrates his 56th birthday on June 4, has lived on Death Row since May 1985.

It is always good to break up the hour-plus drive (from downtown Tucson) through Catalina and the Oracle Junction to the Pinal Pioneer Parkway with a stop at the Tom Mix Memorial. It is well marked and about 15 minutes south of Florence.

The famous silent-movie cowboy star was in Tucson at the Santa Rita Hotel when, in October 1940, he packed his bags to head north. He used a silver suitcase that he put in the back of his 1937 Cord Phaeton. Legend, or myth, has it that the case was full of heavy coins.

Mix, then 60, was known to drink, but also as one who could hold his liquor. He made some stops along the way and then gunned it for Florence, unaware of road work and barricades placed on the parkway, which has skinny shoulders and many twists and dips through arroyos. Mix saw the barricades too late, stood on the Cord's breaks and careened into a wash. The suitcase flew forward and struck his head. He is said to have risen from the wreckage for one, last step. He died of a broken neck.

A metal sculpture of Mix's performance companion, Tony the Wonder Horse, adorns the monument erected "in memory of Tom Mix, whose spirit left his body on this spot and whose characterizations and portrayals in life served to better fix memories of the Old West in the minds of living men."

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