Mesa is the first city in Arizona to privatize its jail operations.
As protesters filled the Mesa City Council chambers with signs stating “NO PRIVATE JAIL,” and chanted “do the right thing,” the Mesa City Council disregarded their pleas and voted to become the first city in Arizona with a private jail.
The council voted Monday to enter into 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.
Beginning later this year, CoreCivic will handle all transportation of Mesa misdemeanor offenders and house them in Florence. The Mesa Police Department has not yet solidified a timeline.
Since the city announced it would consider privatizing its jail operations in March, hundreds of residents have emailed Mesa council members asking them to reject the contract, according to an Arizona Republic review of public records.
But the potential cost savings of about $2 million per year and chance for long-term jail reform spoke louder than the public ire.
Mayor John Giles said his responsibilities as mayor include protecting the financial state of the city. He also said he’d toured the Maricopa County jail and Florence prison and found the private facility to be much nicer for inmates.
He also noted that deaths per 1,000 inmates are three times higher at the county facility.
“It’s a scared straight experience,” Giles said of the Maricopa County jail.
Councilman Jeremy Whitaker and Vice Mayor David Luna opposed the contract. Both said the city should give Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, who took office four months ago, more time to reform costs at the jail.
Giles said Mesa’s decision to move to a private model will encourage the county to reform its jail model quicker.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is jail reform. This is what you want,” Giles said.
The council’s 4-2 vote to privatize was met with a chorus of boos and “shame on you.”
Activists across the nation have expressed increased concern about CoreCivic and other private companies that operate jails and prisons, citing inmate mistreatment and lax security at the facilities.
In Arizona, riots broke out in a facility near Kingman, causing the evacuation of roughly 1,200 inmates in 2015. Last year, a measles outbreak affected more than a dozen inmates at the Eloy Detention Center.
Many advocacy groups also argue that these facilities are immoral at their core. Prisons and jails should be about rehabilitation — and that duty should not be outsourced to a company that’s looking to turn a profit, they say.
Hours before the council meeting, social activism groups, including local NAACP and Black Lives Matter chapters gathered for a press conference outside Mesa City Hall.
“This is unprecedented in Arizona and rarely done anywhere else,” Caroline Isaacs, program director for the American Friends Service Committee in Tuscon said of the Mesa proposal.
It’s not just CoreCivic that worries community leaders, it’s private prisons as a whole.
“It is the commoditization of people and profiting off of their worst situations,” said Reginald Walton of Black Lives Matter Phoenix.
Giles and a representative from CoreCivic have urged the public to remember that some of 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.
Mesa’s contract would be the only one in the nation with solely misdemeanor offenders, but similar issues have occurred in CoreCivic jail facilities that have both misdemeanor and felony inmates,
“We’re appreciative for the opportunity to help the city meet its correctional needs,” CoreCivic spokesman Steve Owen said after the council’s vote.
The Indianapolis Star reported in April that Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett plans to cancel a long-standing private jail contract with CoreCivic in hopes of saving the city millions.
The countywide jail has faced ongoing criticism and legal issues, which also played a role in the city’s decision.
According to The Indianapolis Star, a lawsuit filed earlier this year alleges that CoreCivic staff failed to prevent an inmate’s suicide. Critics have also condemned the company for drug trafficking at the jail. The county Sheriff’s Department arrested four people, including three inmates, as part of a drug trafficking investigation in January.
Mesa 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.
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.
What does this mean for Maricopa County?
Mesa’s decision to contract with CoreCivic will have a direct fiscal effect on Maricopa County, and likely all of the other cities and agencies that use the county jail.
County spokesman Fields Moseley said the county’s jail rates are rising because fewer people are sentenced to jail time due to increasing diversion opportunities — so the costs of operating a jail are projected onto a smaller number of people.
Currently, Mesa is the seventh- largest user of the county’s facility and makes up 8.7 percent of all inmates, he said. The city pays the county about $6 million per year for jail services.
County Supervisor Steve Chucri, who represents a portion of Mesa, said he understood the city’s desire to look for the most “cost-effective” option and “wishes them nothing but success” with their new partner.
But, Chucri said Maricopa County has a host of experience operating jails and he knows “it’s not an easy job to do.” He said there will be unanticipated medical expenses and other costs that the city and contractor may not have foreseen.
He said the city and county will remain in communication in case Mesa needs to transition back to county services in part or in full.
A statement from Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office last week 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.”
Republic reporter Robert Gundran contributed to this article.
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