Mesa could be the first city in Arizona to privatize its jail operations. Jessica Boehm/azcentral.com
The Mesa Police Department proposes to save more than $2 million by sending its misdemeanor offenders to a private jail facility in Florence.
But a barrage of local activists say the risks of privatization could prove more costly than beneficial.
On Monday, the Mesa City Council will vote on a three-year, $15 million contract with CoreCivic — the company previously known as Corrections Corporation of America that already operates state facilities in Florence and Eloy — to transport and house misdemeanor offenders in a separate section of its Florence facility.
Currently, the Mesa Police Department, and every other Valley police agency, transports misdemeanor offenders to Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail, and pays the county to house them there.
But steady increases in the county’s pricing inspired Mesa to look at private options. The county’s booking cost jumped more than 60 percent in the past decade, and its daily housing price increased almost 40 percent.
Private prisons used by the state and federal government have incited controversy in Arizona and beyond because of allegations of inmate mistreatment and lax security.
Local criminal-justice advocates are raising those same concerns about the Mesa proposal.
Critics raise concerns to Mesa leaders
At a council study session on Thursday, about 10 activists and Mesa residents asked council members to oppose the contract with CoreCivic.
Mayor John Giles and a representative from CoreCivic urged the public to remember that the issues in Eloy and other private prison facilities involved felony offenders. The Mesa facility would only house misdemeanor offenders, who tend to be more stable, they said.
The speakers also condemned the idea that prisoners would be outsourced to a company that’s looking to turn a profit.
Gilbert Romero, an organizer with Living United for Change in Arizona, said private prisons, and especially CoreCivic’s Eloy facility, do not have a history of treating inmates humanely.
“I think this would cause Mesa more headaches down the road than it would benefits,” he said.
Mesa lawyer Dianne Post told the council it should reject the private jail because they are “inefficient, ineffective and immoral.”
She cautioned that although the contract appears to save the city money at the outset, CoreCivic could add hidden costs into the contract or hike the pricing down the road. She questioned private facilities’ ability to reduce recidivism.
But most importantly, the council should reject the contract because it is immoral, she said.
“Making profit off another person’s misery, making bodies a commodity in the stream of commerce — we have a name for that. It’s called slavery. We did it before. It was a bad idea then and it’s a bad idea now,” Post said.
Mesa resident Dave Wells told the council his son is on probation and it is “not beyond the realm of possibility” that the council’s decision will directly affect his family.
He said that beyond the public concerns about private prisons, he fears that Mesa’s decision to pull out of the MCSO facility will increase costs on other Valley cities.
One councilman speaks up
Councilman Jeremy Whittaker was the only council member who spoke out against the jail privatization.
He said he worries CoreCivic’s lobbyists would descend upon the city and donate money to council campaigns in an effort to get new city ordinances that would increase jail time, therefore increasing the company’s profits.
“That’s one of my deepest concerns with this issue,” he said.
Mesa Presiding Judge J. Matias Tafoya later told The Republic that the city is working to decrease the number of people it incarcerates — and will continue to do so regardless of “what jail it is.”
He said the court already offers a large number of diversion programs and an ankle-bracelet monitoring program to keep people out of jail. He said his team is working to increase these opportunities.
“We are on a mission in the city to make sure we have justice for all people, and especially the poor,” Tafoya said.
What CoreCivic would do
If the city moves forward with the private-jail project, CoreCivic will be responsible for transporting Mesa’s misdemeanor offenders to Florence.
Currently, Mesa police officers escort the offenders to downtown Phoenix.
Cmdr. Michael Beaton said freeing up those officers will allow them to spend “more time on the street protecting our citizens.”
The city expects to have about 678 inmates incarcerated per month next year.
The contract with CoreCivic for transportation and housing is expected to cost the city $5 million annually.
The city would pay CoreCivic a $35,000 monthly transportation fee and $68 per inmate, per day — with the ability to decrease the daily rate if the city has more than 200 inmates per day.
Sheriff’s Office makes its case
Next year’s county rate would have the city paying a $326 booking fee per inmate and $102 per inmate, per day. The difference equates to about $2 million, city officials said.
Maricopa County spokesman Fields Moseley said the county’s rising rates are a direct byproduct of the number of inmates in jail. Courts are sentencing fewer people to jail due to the increasing number of diversion opportunities. But the static costs of running a jail — like building and personnel costs — remain the same.
He said if Mesa stops using Maricopa County facilities, it will have an effect on all the other cities and agencies who rely on the county for incarceration. Mesa is the seventh- largest user of the county’s facility and makes up 8.7 percent of all inmates, he said.
A statement from Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said it is still evaluating the potential impact of Mesa’s move to privatization. There could be an increase in fees for booking services on other agencies, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office statement says it understands Mesa “is acting in good faith” but notes the differences in Sheriff’s Office and private services.
“The mission of MCSO and Maricopa County is to reduce crime and reduce recidivism rates by incorporating in its jail facilities evidence-based practices including inmate education, health needs, substance-abuse issues, homelessness and employability. A for-profit provider has a vested interest in keeping as many people incarcerated for as long as possible.”
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