Democratic lawmakers from south Phoenix are siding with their voters in a fight against two proposed programs aimed at helping prisoners re-enter society, a long held constituency of theirs that doesn’t vote.
The lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios and Rep. Reginald Bolding, who represent Phoenix’s Legislative District 27, and Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, are outraged that Gov. Doug Ducey is proposing to open a re-entry center at Maricopa County’s Durango Jail. It would house those who have completed their state prison sentences but have violated their conditions of release, and there would also be an employment center for current state prisoners.
Though they support programs that provide current and former prisoners with job training and substance abuse treatment, they said they are tired of south Phoenix being a “dumping ground” for these types of programs.
The Arizona Department of Corrections opened a similar facility, the Maricopa Reentry Center, in north Phoenix in July 2016, despite protest from residents of the predominately white, middle class neighborhood. The new plan calls for the relocation of that center to south Phoenix, which Gallardo said was “just another example of environmental injustice in this community.”
“There’s a dirty little secret behind the relocation, and it’s not about helping the poor, it’s not about recidivism,” Gallardo said. “It’s about relocating from a very vocal white, upper-middle-class neighborhood to a minority, low-income neighborhood. That’s what it’s about. It’s about ‘Let’s move into a location where there will be less pushback and let’s try to do it real quickly before anyone knows.’”
The elected officials, along with business and community members of the south Phoenix neighborhood surrounding the Durango complex, said they worry the two programs could negatively impact an area that already has four county jails, a state prison nearby and a large homeless population. They also argued that the neighborhood has a proven track record of supporting such programs and that it was time other communities in the county and state stepped up to help fight recidivism.
Speaking to the Arizona Capitol Times, Rios and Bolding said despite being in favor of such programs, it wasn’t difficult for them to choose representing the needs of their voters versus those of the prisoner population in their Legislative district. Their voters’ concerns, they both said, outweighed the prisoners’ needs.
“I think what we’re saying is south Phoenix, and specifically that location, we have taken more than our per capita share of jails and homeless shelters,” Rios said. “When is the rest of the state going to step up and provide the same amount of services?”
Bolding said many recently released prisoners don’t have access to transportation or housing and become a burden on the community. That, coupled with a large homeless population that will soon grow with the expansion of Phoenix Rescue Mission’s men’s shelter, is “sentencing the people who are in the community to an environment that people don’t want to live in.”
“The main thing I’m hearing from my constituents is that our students, parents and business owners don’t feel safe,” Bolding said.
Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said if run properly, re-entry centers can benefit the community by stimulating the economy, especially in an area that has struggled economically.
She said for a Democratic Party that has historically run on a platform of supporting disadvantaged communities, the lawmakers’ arguments “pretty much fall on hollow ground.”
“It seems a bit disingenuous to object to a re-entry center, which is specifically geared toward people who have successfully completed their prison sentence and are now attempting to become productive members of society, when they have been for so many years perfectly accepting of jails and homeless shelters in their neighborhood,” Hamm said.
She said the elected officials opposing the re-entry program can’t have it both ways – they can’t support such programs but argue they don’t want them in their neighborhood.
“You give a little to get a little,” she said.
The Arizona Department of Corrections currently operates two employment centers at the Lewis and Perryville prisons in Buckeye and Goodyear, respectively, and the Maricopa Reentry Center in north Phoenix.
The proposed employment center at the Durango complex, which provides job training and connects prisoners with employers, would house 335 low-to-medium custody prisoners that have a medium-to-high risk of re-offending, and have 60 days of their prison sentence left to serve, said Tim Roemer, Ducey’s policy adviser on public safety.
A proposed 265-bed re-entry center would provide services, such as temporary housing and intensive substance abuse treatment, to former prisoners who are on community supervision and are at risk of violating or have violated their conditions of release, he said.
Roemer added that the plan calls for the closure of the two existing employment centers and the relocation of the north Phoenix re-entry center to the Durango complex.
The jail complex, he said, will provide the state with a central location close to several employers and ample space to serve a larger population.
Roemer added that staff is unsure of where on the Durango complex the proposed employment and re-entry centers would be housed, or whether the centers would be housed in an existing building at the facility or if staff would have to budget for new construction. Possible locations include the former Tent City site or the Durango Jail, which is being replaced by a new facility.
Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group focused on criminal justice reform, said she wasn’t surprised south Phoenix residents don’t want the center. She said the best approach to ending recidivism is creating a statewide network of re-entry centers.
“It’s not surprising that folks in a majority Latino and lower-income community may feel put upon after the folks with more resources said, ‘No, no, no put it over there,’” she said, adding later: “We have a number of concerns with this whole process. All of the communities are entitled to a process that incorporates their feedback and concerns and it appears that hasn’t happened in either case.”
Still, Isaacs said the centers should be embraced instead of being seen as a “threat to the community.”
“The general framing of a re-entry center as some kind of blight on the community is extremely problematic and undermines what everyone says their goal is, which is to reduce recidivism,” Isaacs said. “We can’t keep engaging in this rhetoric that people who are in these programs are throw away people.”
Elected Democrats aren’t the only ones challenging the proposed location.
Attorney Stephen Montoya, who is representing a coalition of community members and parents in the Murphy Elementary School District in south Phoenix, said during a news conference on November 27 that mothers in the surrounding neighborhood were afraid to let their children walk to school and that parents in the district were fearful “the relocation of the re-entry center will increase the already challenged circumstances of that neighborhood.”
However, Renee Dominguez, who lives in the area and had children who attended the school district, said many of the concerns have been spurred by a flyer passed out by Phoenix activist Salvador Reza.
The flyer, which Dominguez provided to the Arizona Capitol Times, states in Spanish that the proposal would bring 3,500 drug and sex offenders to the community and that they would be allowed to enter and leave the facility without being monitored.
“It’s a scare tactic to scare the community, scare the moms who walk their children to school,” Dominguez said. “The misinformation and lies that are being told to the community and parents are leading to fear.”
Roemer said sex offenders will not be housed at the re-entry center. He also noted it would not function like a shelter and people in the program would only be allowed to leave with prior permission and would be monitored by DOC officials.
He was unable to provide a timeline for when the project will be completed or a cost estimate, adding that the project is still in the early stages and staff is working with the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to determine if the project is viable. In October, the supervisors approved a letter of intent to join with the state to study the possibility of using the Durango complex or “other suitable property” to house the programs.
He added that staff has been invited to speak to the community, and he noted that according to a new law Ducey signed earlier this year, DOC has to notify all property owners within a two-mile radius of a proposed correctional facility and hold public hearings.