Mesa Mayor John Giles defended the city’s landmark decision to send inmates accused of misdemeanors to a private jail in Florence, rather than a Maricopa County jail, as the most humane choice as well as a fiscal “no-brainer.”
The move makes Mesa the first city in Arizona to contract with a private company to incarcerate misdemeanor defendants, who are charged with crimes such as driving under the influence and shoplifting. Mesa Police Commander Mike Beaton said the average stay in jail is 6-10 days.
The $15 million, three-year contract with CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, was unpopular with a large crowd of social activists who packed the council chambers, with 25 people requesting to speak against the plan and 12 eventually pleading with the council to reject it. They booed Giles and other council members after a stormy session that ended with a 4-2 vote to approve the deal.
Angry protesters chanted “Do the right thing” in the council chambers and “Boycott Mesa” outside the council chambers, with some of them arguing the contract is also racially insensitive because minorities tend to get arrested at higher rate in Mesa and elsewhere.
But Giles said Mesa is doing exactly what the protesters asked for – doing the right thing – by shipping the low-level misdemeanor inmates to the Florence jail, that human rights was a strong consideration in his mind and that race has nothing to do with the council’s decision.
“We want to send them to the more humane facility,” Giles said, noting that he had toured the CoreCivic jail and Maricopa County’s 4th Avenue jail and that CoreCivic was clearly the superior facility.
“We win because we have a better facility. We win because we have a dramatically lower cost,” Giles said. “This is a color-blind issue. They come in all shapes and sizes, but everyone deserves to have the safest, most humane cell.”
Council members Jeremy Whittaker and David Luna disagreed with Giles and voted against the contract. Whittaker said he is philosophically opposed to contracting with a company whose profits depend upon incarcerating the most people possible, even though the Mesa Municipal Court has pursued innovative programs for years to avoid incarceration through diversion programs and electronic monitoring.
Whittaker said he also is concerned about CoreCivic lobbyists urging Mesa officials in the future to pass more city code laws that could lead to boosting incarceration, fattening their revenues and profits.
“We open our arms to a major lobbyist group with arms wide open,” Whittaker said. “I believe we have an obligation to give Paul Penzone more than four months to solve the problem.”
Councilman David Luna, the other council member to vote against the deal, noted that Mesa officials had dusted off an idea that was five years old, with the original request for proposals issued in 2012.
“I just don’t want to be impetuous. Why can’t we wait a year?” Luna said.
But Giles said the council’s action in contracting with the Florence prison would help put pressure on Maricopa County to improve the jails. He said in an interview that he respects Sheriff Penzone and that the county jails might improve a year or more from now, but CoreCivic is the best choice at this moment.
Giles said he found it ironic that opponents suddenly were advocating for inmates to remain in the county jails after criticizing former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s management of the jails for years.
“Many of you have been asking someone to do something about the jails,” he said. “This is jail reform. This is what you want.”
Mesa cannot ignore at least $2 million in anticipated savings during the upcoming fiscal year, given the fiscal strain caused by being a growing city with no property taxes, no food taxes and a low sales tax, Giles said.
CoreCivic charges a rate of $67.96 per day per inmate with no additional booking charge. There is a $35,000 per month fee to take inmates from the Mesa police lockup to the Florence jail.
In contrast, Maricopa County’s housing rate has increased from $3.46 since the 2008-09 fiscal year to $101.72 for the 2017-18 fiscal year, with an additional booking rate that increased from $199.35 per inmate to $325.65.
The CoreCivic jail will have a separate area for Mesa inmates, with 160 beds for males and 80 for females. Beaton said during the council presentation that there have been 42 deaths in the Maricopa County jails, which incarcerate those charged with felonies and misdemeanors, compared with five at CoreCivic’s Eloy detention facility and three at the Florence jail.
“I don’t have to trust them. I have a contract,” Giles said, which includes an out clause that would cancel the deal with 60 days’ notice. If Mesa isn’t satisfied with CoreCivic’s performance, “that relationship won’t last very long at all.”
Mark Casey, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said higher operating costs made the fee increases necessary. They include pension costs for corrections officers, maintenance costs, and pharmacy and health care.
Matthew Whitaker, president and CEO of Diamond Strategies and a member of the Mesa Martin Luther King holiday committee, said the mostly white and Republican council could not comprehend the apprehension among minorities about the contract.
“I think what you saw last night was a clash between a very cloistered community” and minorities, who believe the new jail plan will affect them more because minorities are historically arrested at a higher rate.
“What this tells me is that Mesa values not increasing taxes more than the humanity of its citizens, especially the most vulnerable,” Whitaker said. “I think a lot of people in that room last night see themselves as one of the people who will be jailed. We take it personally.”
Whitaker is a former Arizona State University associate professor who agreed to resign in return for a $200,000 buyout amid allegations of plagiarism.
Mesa police and Giles have embraced programs in recent years to reach out to residents from all racial and religious groups. Former Police Chiefs George Gascon and John Meza both stressed community engagement.
But the critics say they are wondering if Mesa’s deeds match its words.
Heather Hamel, of Phoenix-based Justice That Works, said, “Why would you want to give your money, your taxpayers’ money, to a company with such a lethal record?”
She said CoreCivic has lower fees because it pays employees poorly and its facilities are chronically understaffed, with employees receiving little training. She said these short-sighted practices often have resulted in high turnover and a laundry list of abuses.
Caroline Isaacs, of the Tucson-based American Friends Service Committee, said CoreCivic has a terrible record of abuses, escapes, assaults, suicides and sexual assaults at its facilities in Arizona and throughout the nation.