State to reopen closed prison to house booming female population

State to reopen closed prison to house booming female population

The Department of Corrections will reopen a shuttered prison in Douglas to deal with the fact that women are being locked up at a higher rate.

“We’re simply out of beds,” David Shinn, director of the Department of Corrections told members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. He said the unit at the state prison at Perryville, the only one that houses women, has 67 more inmates than operating capacity.

“Our only option is putting people on the floor,” Shinn said. “That simply is inhumane.”

But Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said it’s not that simple. She said what Shinn wants to do − and the committee gave him the go-ahead on − ignores the fact that the women who would be housed in the facility, which could hold up to 340, would be separated from family.

“I’d rather sleep on the floor and see my kids rather than be isolated in Douglas,” Alston said.

David Shinn
David Shinn

And even Shinn conceded that reopening and staffing the facility may be difficult, as his agency already has more than 1,300 positions it cannot fill in the entire system.

At the root of the problem has been an increase in the rate of women prisoners.

Two years ago the Department of Corrections reported it was adding women at the rate of about five a month. For the most recent budget year the figure is 11.

The result is that there are 4,422 women at Perryville. It is rated for 4,214 beds with another 141 temporary beds added.

What that leaves is the Papago Unit, what had originally been a motel on the west side of Douglas that the state purchased in 1987.

It had been used as a facility for convicted drunk drivers but closed in 2017. Legislative staffers said the state put the walled property up for sale in early 2018 for $560,000 but has so far failed to find any takers.

Now, with the boost in incarcerated women, Shinn wants to reopen it. He figures the minimum security facility has the capacity for 250 permanent beds and 90 temporary beds.

The underlying cause of more women being locked up left House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez with questions. The Yuma Democrat said lawmakers have been told by corrections officials that overall prison population is leveling off.

Shinn had no specific answer to the question of the increasing female population. More to the point, he said, it’s something over which he has no control.

“The people who could best address that are our county attorneys,” he said.

But Shinn agreed to try to populate the facility with women who are from Southern Arizona who might find Douglas closer to family.

“It is certainly something that is important to all of us,” he said.


The committee 7-5 party-line vote came after Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who chairs the committee, refused to allow public comment. Several individuals had signed up to speak, including Kara Williams of the American Civil Liberties Union who wanted to talk about alternatives to incarceration including rehabilitation programs.

That annoyed Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, who said there were people in the audience who might have some solutions to prison crowding other than simply making more beds available.

Issues of effects on inmates of being sent to Douglas aside, Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, asked Shinn if he actually has the people necessary to reopen and staff the facility.

“From a realistic perspective, no,” he responded. But Shinn said the agency will “find a way to get it done.”

That question of staffing is not simply an issue surrounding Douglas.

In a separate report to the committee, Shinn said that one out of every five positions he is authorized are unfilled. And the biggest problem appears to be at prisons outside urban areas.

Leading the vacancy rate is the Eyeman Prison, one of the facilities at Florence, where there are 642 filled positions and 411 vacant ones. The separate Florence Prison is not much better, with just 505 of 760 positions staffed.

And the prisons at Buckeye and Winslow all have vacancy rates higher than 20 percent.

One interesting exception appears to be the prison in Yuma where only eight of 728 slots are vacant.

The way the agency is dealing with it is overtime. That concerned Friese who said 13 percent of corrections officers were working more than 70 hours a week.

“I’m wondering about someone’s ability to function at 90 hours a week, their alertness, their judgment,” he said.

“It’s a concern,” Shinn conceded, relating the story of one officer he came across who had worked a 16-hour shift the night before, driven 90 minutes home and another 90 minutes back.

“(He) was almost asleep on his feet,” the director said. “I sent him outside to take a break and get some fresh air.”

Shinn said his agency is “really, truly strapped” at the prisons with high vacancy rates.

“And were it not for the dedication of these young men and women being willing to do that, we would be in far worse shape,” he said.

Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said the staffing situation appears to be improving a bit, with the vacancy ratios down a bit from the same time three months earlier. Lawmakers approved a pay hike earlier this year as well as allowing the agency to hire corrections officers at young as 18.

But Friese pointed out that the Department of Corrections has a stated goal of a net gain of 812 officers by June 2020 over the same period last year.

“Are you confident that on this current trajectory, the next three quarters will have 812 new COs?” he asked Shinn.

“No, I’m not,” he responded. “We need to do more.”

One option, Shinn said, might be to hire people who want to work only on a part-time basis.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, suggested requiring those who are hired and trained at state expense to sign some sort of commitment agreeing to stay for a certain number of years. The report to lawmakers found starting salaries for the state below not just what is paid by Pima and Maricopa counties to their corrections officers but also less than the Federal Bureau of Prisons and private prisons operated by CoreCivic.