Have you ever contemplated Arizona’s state prison system?

I watch people maneuver through the Arizona justice system on a daily basis. I write stories about the crimes they commit and the trials they endure. I am one who knows the strangers who are called criminals.

Some have done the most heinous of crimes while others are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I truly believe that all people are innocent until proven guilty. I don’t always believe the prosecutors nor the accused. I have experienced angry attorneys yelling at me for little reason and I have many friends who work in the court system.

I was recently thinking about those who are found guilty of their crimes. What really happens to them?

As of July 31, there were 37,985 men and 4,278 women incarcerated in an Arizona state prison. The state’s 42,263 prisoners were being housed in facilities with a bed capacity of just 38,872, according to the Department of Corrections’ own documents.

The Pima Liberator states that Arizona currently incarcerates 877 people per 100,000. That seems higher than it actually is.

The Pima Liberator advocates for justice reform and the end of mass incarceration in Pima County and was created by Tucson attorney Joel Feinman after his unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for Pima County attorney in 2016.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2018 Arizona had the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the nation, with the state incarcerating 589 people per 100,000 compared with a national average of 397 people per 100,000 at that time.

According to the ACLU, more than half of the people in Arizona prisons were serving time for an offense that did not involve violence, with drug possession and distribution as the most common offenses and accounting for 32% of prison admissions in 2017.

Based on current numbers, there are more than 2.1 million people incarcerated in the United States with a skyrocketing average incarceration rate of 655 per 100,000 in population, the highest rate of any nation, according to the World Prison Brief at PrisonStudies.org. China reports only 1.6 million prisoners in custody while Russia admits to a mere 467,000 prisoners in its jails.

The beginning of Arizona’s prisons dates back to 1868 when the Fifth Territorial Legislature proposed a bill calling for a prison to be located near Phoenix. Government didn’t work well back then and nothing happened until 1876, when seven convicted men were led up “Prison Hill” in the tiny village of Yuma. The seven men sentenced to the state’s first prison also had to help build it.

The Yuma Territorial Prison housed more than 3,000 prisoners during its 33-year run. The prison began closing on Sept. 15, 1909, after the new prison opened in Florence in 1908. It took four years for the territorial prison to completely shut down.

Inmates also built the new prison in Florence while being forced to live in tents in the hostile desert. The new prison started a rich historic trail for Florence that continues to this day.

One of the features at the new Florence prison in 1908 was a death chamber, which was located one floor above prisoners housed on death row. The chamber was a scaffold with a floor and a trap door, through which the condemned fell into a room below.

In 1933, the method of death changed from hanging to lethal gas. Lethal injection became the preferred method in 1992.

Currently there are 116 prisoners sitting on Arizona’s death row. The majority of today’s death row is taken up by 63 Anglos while 25 Hispanics also wait. The rest of death row is made up of 18 African Americans, five Native Americans, three Asians and two listed as “other.”

Of the 116 currently on death row, 113 are male and three are female.

The last person executed in Arizona was Joseph Rudolph Wood III, who was convicted of killing two people in a Tucson automotive paint and body shop on Aug. 7, 1989.

Wood was executed on July 23, 2014, in Florence, with a two-hour lethal injection procedure that was described by witnesses as “botched.”

Wood gasped and snorted for an hour and fifty-seven minutes after the drugs were injected. Experts said the execution should have taken about 10 minutes.

Wood was executed with a combination of Midazolam and Hydromorphone, which had only been used once previously for the January 2014 execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio.

McGuire’s execution had also been described as “botched” with similar results.

Wood’s request for his last meal was “two cookies.”

There have been 100 executions in Arizona since 1910 with 28 by hanging, 37 by lethal gas and 35 by lethal injection. Of the 100, a total of 99 were men and one was a woman, Eva Dugan.

Dugan was executed by hanging in Florence on Feb. 21, 1930. As her body dropped, the noose tightened and it decapitated her. Her hanging influenced the state to seek a more modern method of capital punishment.

From 1910 to 1931, state records indicate that 13 Hispanics, nine Anglos, four Chinese and two Africans Americans were hung.

During the lethal gas era, 20 Anglos, 10 African Americans and seven Hispanics were put to death.

Those put to death by lethal injection since 1993 were 15 Anglos, five Hispanics and three Native Americans.

Arizona has 17 state correctional facilities including Douglas, Florence Eyman, Florence Complex, Lewis, Perryville, Phoenix, Safford, Tucson, Winslow, Yuma, Central Arizona, Florence West, Kingman, Marana, Phoenix West and Red Rock.

Eyman, Florence Complex, Central Arizona and Florence West are all located in Florence while Red Rock is located in Eloy. Red Rock, Florence West and Central Arizona are CoreCivic prisons under contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections.

While you may or may not think about the criminals being involved in history, Arizona’s prisons are historic and something that need to be recorded and examined. Prisons are big business in Arizona and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Remember: If you can’t do the time — don’t do the crime!


Justice reporter Jim Headley can be reached at jheadley@pinalcentral.com.