The state Department of Corrections has partnered with the state Department of Economic Security to begin programs at three prisons to help inmates leaving the system get a job. The goal: lower the 39 percent recidivism rate. Nick Oza/


BUCKEYE — It’s a hot, midmorning summer day, and 43 men looking for work sit shoulder to shoulder on plastic chairs inside a concrete-walled room.

Most have resumes in hand. They listen intently to job pitches from a group of homebuilders. A roofing contractor tells them his line of work is grueling, but they can make good money.

“If you show up every day, you will advance,” he says.

Those are encouraging words, as all these men have been out of work for months. For some, it’s been years.

After a few more brief presentations, the men — all clad in identical orange T-shirts and pants — quickly rise and shuffle to a nearby room to start interviewing.

This is the Sunrise Employment Center, a new program inside the walls of Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis on the Valley’s far outskirts in western Maricopa County.

Sunrise is a converted facility that once housed juvenile offenders. It still has football goal posts standing idly in an adjacent field. It’s one of three new job centers within Arizona’s prison system, joining others at the Perryville women’s prison 30 miles northeast of Sunrise in Goodyear, and at a men’s facility in Tucson.

The goal is to reduce recidivism by giving a special hand to inmates the Arizona Department of Corrections has identified as likely to commit new crimes upon release. The agency puts them in an eight-week program that helps them get jobs and social services like state-sponsored health insurance and food stamps as soon as they walk out the prison doors.

“This has been excellent,” said Mark Mugleston, who was finishing his time on a drug rap and in his final days at Sunrise. “It’s nice to know there are employers out there willing to give us a second chance.”

All three DOC job programs were launched March 27 as part of Gov. Doug Ducey’s goal to tackle the state’s recidivism rate. 

The hope is to reduce Arizona’s growing prison population and free up more state general-fund dollars for education or other programs.

Ducey plans to visit the Sunrise program Aug. 14.

“This is one piece in an overall agenda,” said Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s spokesman. “It’s not only the right thing to do for people who are leaving, but also, over time, it’s a huge savings to taxpayers and the state if we don’t have to house and feed someone when they go back to prison. We would rather have them in society.”

The focus on lowering Arizona’s 39 percent recidivism rate is a change in philosophy among state leaders, as Arizona has long prided itself as a lock-’em-up, tough-on-crime state.

That stance, however, has put a significant strain on the state’s budget. Arizona’s recidivism rate is among the bottom half of all states, according to a December 2016 study done by the Virginia Department of Corrections.

In the last decade, state budget records show, general-fund allocations for Corrections increased nearly 21 percent — three times the growth rate of K-12 funding.

Corrections, with $1 billion in annual allocations going to house inmates, receives the third-largest amount from the state general fund — behind public education and health care for the poor.

The number of people locked up in Arizona prisons — 42,251 — has increased about 14 percent in the last decade. It currently costs Arizona $24,186 a year to lock up one inmate.


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‘A second chance’

Among the employers meeting with inmates at a recent Sunrise job fair was Austin Electric. The company has built a partially completed home inside the prison that will be used to teach inmates electrical skills before being released.

One of Austin Electric’s trainers is Donald Stevenson, 31, himself a former inmate who served time with some of those now seeking jobs.

“I can see the look in some of these guys’ eyes. It’s like, ‘Bro’, how did you make it out of here?’ ” said Stevenson. “I came out with nothing. But now I have two vehicles and a home. I’m trying to get these guys to come work for us.”

Stevenson said he’s making $17.50 an hour, and he’s proud of how far he’s come.

“It feels really good,” Stevenson said. “Hopefully, I’ll see some of these guys outside.”

Troy Barbush, director of training and development for Austin Electric, said the company will pay $13 an hour to inmates upon their release, and there are plenty of opportunities to advance.

“Our philosophy is not only to give them a second chance, but if they don’t have a place to be successful, they probably will come back to prison,” Barbush said. 

Of the company’s 450 employees, he said, about 50 are former inmates.

Jobs equal success

As part of its pilot jobs program, Corrections has partnered with the state Department of Economic Security to provide employment counselors inside the prisons.

At Sunrise, DES has installed 10 computers that have limited internet access so inmates can look for jobs or enroll in community-college classes. 

Mugleston, 31, was recently checking on college courses that he could take in addition to starting work. As a former Arizona high-school star who briefly played college football, Mugleston said the program has helped change his thinking.

“This is rock bottom for a lot of us,” he said. “I needed to accept responsibility.”

Karen Hellman, who runs inmate re-entry programs for DOC, said her agency doesn’t want or need repeat business.

The best way to keep felons from returning is to make sure they are employed when they get out, she said.

Having job fairs with potential employers inside the prison before an inmate’s release also makes it easier for an offender to find work.

“Employment is a huge factor to success,” Hellman said. “Our issue is, how do we address that prior to release?”

Richard Martinez, state re-entry coordinator for DES, said the goal is to have inmates “job ready” when they leave.

“But some of these guys are leaving here with jobs in hand, and that is icing on the cake,” Martinez said.

Amanda Keams, a DES re-entry specialist, said some inmates didn’t believe the program would work.

They have become true believers after getting a job or seeing others get employment offers.

Jo Dorsey, a 72-year-old released from the women’s prison in late March, said during her 18 years behind bars she didn’t see the state do much to help inmates succeed on the outside. Yet she was encouraged to learn about the new program.

“I am very impressed that the state of Arizona has finally tried to come to a solution,” Dorsey said. “When these girls leave prison, they have something to look forward to.”

Learning life skills

When DOC opened the employment centers this spring, it decided to place them in the largest population centers where most offenders being released are from: Maricopa and Pima counties.

The agency started small to test the idea, opening a re-entry center in north Phoenix last year. That smaller facility helps felons with employment, life skills, temporary housing and drug-treatment programs. 

Now, there are up to 100 inmates at Sunrise, and about half as many in each of the other two prisons.

To qualify, inmates must pass an interview and be willing to participate in all activities for eight weeks. 

During those two months, inmates are taught personal finance and computer skills, interview techniques, and dressing for a job. Some even learn how to make child-support payments to avoid being re-imprisoned for missing their payments

Corrections also helps inmates get a driver’s license or state identification card. If necessary, the state will help them obtain a birth certificate or start a bank account to encourage their success on the outside.

As of late July, 197 inmates successfully completed the program at the three prisons — and 106 have jobs.

Stephen Staats, 23, is working to put himself on the plus side of that ledger. He has been in prison three years for a burglary conviction. While behind bars, Staats said he didn’t do anything other than earn a GED certificate.

He considers himself lucky to get into Sunrise. There is a line of other inmates on the program’s waiting list. 

Six weeks into the program, Staats said he has two jobs lined up, each paying $13.50 an hour.

“I have a choice, which definitely would not have happened without this program,” Staats said.

Hellman, the DOC official, said the state is aiming to cut Arizona’s recidivism rate by one-fourth.

“That is a hyper, hyper-aggressive goal. If we do that, we will do what no other state has done,” she said. “We are going to shoot for the moon.”


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