Gov. Doug Ducey’s announcement in his State of the State Address that he would be shutting down the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence astounded criminal justice advocates and the town itself.
The move would save taxpayers $270 million over three years that would have been used for prison repairs, according to Ducey’s staff. Florence officials claimed they weren’t aware this was coming, but Ducey says otherwise.
“Much to our surprise, during this Address the Governor announced the closure of the Florence State Prison,” the city said in a press release.
Ducey denied that.
“I believe our staff worked with community leaders and we’ll have a transition plan that I think will make people very comfortable with the program,” Ducey said, adding that he told them sometime before the State of the State Address.
In his address, the governor also failed to mention which prison he would be shutting down. But what he did say, in a press release, is that inmates “will be relocated to a combination of third-party operators and county corrections facilities.”
Caroline Isaacs, the program director for American Friends Service Committee- Arizona, a social-action arm of the Quaker faith, is not on board with Ducey’s plan, mostly in the essence that sending more prisoners to county facilities is a “bad idea,” to say the least.
Isaacs compared Ducey’s ultimate plan to something similar that recently happened in California. She mentioned a federal lawsuit demanding California remove people from its prisons because of overcrowding, but the state instead went ahead with sending prisoners to its county facilities.
“California did choose to send people to county jails and it was a disaster because county jails are not equipped for this population. They are designed for very short-term stays of pre-trial detainees,” she said. “You have people coming in who just were arrested in all kinds of states — detoxing from drugs, in acute mental health crisis, and everything else. So if Ducey is concerned about making the mission of Corrections into one of treatment and rehabilitation, you’re not going to get that in a county jail.”
Isaacs said the way she would go about this process is through sentencing reform to reduce the prison population.
“That’s what a vast majority of other states, including very conservative states have done quite successfully. And that’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. And the thing that’s actually best for public safety,” she said.
Isaacs said it’s concerning that they want to send prisoners to private facilities.
Ducey’s staff said that the move will be done thoughtfully, with sensitivity to the community that regards the Florence prison as a historic site and the main provider of jobs. But there’s still a problem that most other facilities are at or near capacity already.
The Florence prison houses 3,881 prisoners according to data from the Department of Corrections as recent as November 30. Eyman – which is down the street from Florence and where Ducey said most prisoners would be moved to – only has 193 open beds out of roughly 5,700, which means the plan would rely on counties even more.
Isaacs called that solution “the California way,” poking fun at the governor’s State of the State Twitter hashtag, #TheArizonaWay.
When California sent prisoners to county facilities, violence skyrocketed.
A trio of lawmakers who represent the city of Florence did not see a problem with shutting the doors of the prison that could result in what Florence estimates to be a $1.3 million direct hit to town services.
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said the prison complex was “dated and unsafe.”
“Moving many of those inmates to Eyman or to a county facility, especially if they’re less violent offenders, let’s go ahead and see how that works,” he said. Shope also cares about job loss, which both he and the Ducey staff claim there won’t be, since workers in Florence will also be moved to other facilities, including Eyman.
His two seatmates, Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, and Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, joined him in a collective press release on January 15, saying Ducey’s plan was “worthy of consideration.”
Looking ahead, Isaacs said when prisons do shut down, it matters how the buildings are going to be repurposed to “serve the community and not disappear people from it.”
Florence officials at a town council meeting on January 13 pointed to the successes of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco as a good example of what a non-operating prison could become.
“The Florence State Prison is a historic landmark and is woven into the very fabric of Florence,” the town stated.