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Programs help inmates in Eloy prison find faith and hope behind bars
 mstaude  / 

ELOY -- On a sunny Saturday afternoon, worshippers file into an overflowing room in Red Rock Correctional Center, Bibles in hand, as an inmate-led worship band plays upbeat praise music.

Some worshippers stand, arms raised above their heads as they sing along with the band. Others kneel in prayer.

When the preacher begins, he delivers a fiery know-yourself-theme sermon, challenging attendees to set aside sins and shame of the past.

While it looks and sounds like any worship service at any church, the Saturday afternoon service is part of a suite of peer-led leadership programs at Red Rock Correctional Center that fall under the facility’s Go Further initiative, an effort to reduce recidivism by equipping inmates with the life skills, education and confidence they need to be successful once they’re released.

Through the leadership program, inmates help other inmates by teaching classes, counseling and tutoring one another. On Saturday afternoons, the inmates lead a Bible-based worship service. Some inmates preach, others prepare scripture references and some perform in the house worship band.

“We know we’re in prison, but we don’t call Red Rock a prison. We call it Red Rock Academy because it’s teaching us to be better men and leaders,” said Joshua Johnson, 42, who is currently serving time for aggravated assault.

He’s now a mentor to other inmates and is one of the preachers during worship service.

“Most of us are people who just made bad choices, a lot of the times due to chemical dependency. In some ways, this place saved my life. I was out there slowly killing myself with drugs,” he said.

Red Rock Correctional Center is a medium-security prison owned and operated by CoreCivic. It serves the Arizona Department of Corrections.

The facility houses 2,000 inmates, about 51% of them on their second or third prison sentence.

Participation in peer-led leadership programs can be life-changing for those involved, said the facility chaplain, Edward Thibodeaux.

“The program changes their hearts,” he said. “It gets them thinking differently.”

Red Rock offers a slate of religious services for its inmates including regular pastor-led Christian services as well as separate services for Native American, Latter-day Saints, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish and Muslim inmates. About 800 inmates attend religious services on a regular basis.

Participation in the inmate-led worship service has grown from a handful about a year ago to nearly 100 regular participants every Saturday afternoon.

“I can stand in here and preach all day, but when it’s one of their own preaching, it’s different,” Thibodeaux said. “They know they can’t con each other so if they’re up there preaching, they have to walk the walk. They can’t be hypocritical.”

When Alejandro Cano-Garcia preaches during the worship service, he speaks in fast Spanish, urging inmates to know their true selves by reading the Bible. Fellow inmate Federico Rodriguez translates for him.

Cano-Garcia became a Christian in prison and believes that through his current sentence, God freed him from a life of drug smuggling.

“As a kid growing up in Mexico, I basically felt I had two career options. The first was to become a soldier in the army. The second choice was to become a gunman or smuggler for the cartels. That was my mentality at the time. I realize now that having grown up in sin and ignorance, I took the wrong road,” he said.

His first arrest, he said, came at the height of his smuggling career.

“I turned to God after my first arrest, but I still had the old mentality so I was praying to God to help me sell marijuana so I could get rich and help people,” he said. “I wasn’t ready at that point to change.”

Things were different during his second arrest.

“I noticed the sheriff’s license plate had a 666 in it. At that point, I felt the devil was laughing at me,” he said. “For a long time after my arrest, I was mad. I surrendered to God and now, even though I have seven more years to go (of a 10-year sentence), life is perfect, even in this place.”

Cano-Garcia is now a favorite Saturday afternoon preacher. He hopes to eventually open orphanages and churches in Mexico.

“God is working miracles in this prison. He’s changing lives. Mine is one of them,” he said.

Inmates in the leadership program are housed together and are accountable to one another. To serve as mentors, they must apply to the program, submit an essay then undergo interviews. They also must stay out of trouble.

They go through a series of trainings, including leadership, mentoring and tutoring. They teach classes such as stress reduction and conflict resolution and help their fellow inmates prepare for a GED, literacy certificate or other educational goals.

So far this year, 111 inmates at Red Rock have earned a GED. By the end of the year, that number is expected to be more than 150. Another 252 have earned literacy certificates and 200 have attained job training certificates in electrical work, carpentry, computer science or horticulture.

The faith-based program combined with the educational, leadership and life skills training gives inmates the tools they need to be successful once they’re released, Thibodeaux said.

“I’ve seen inmates released and go out there and make something of their lives. The education gives them the training they need. Faith gives them hope,” he said.

Casa Grande students plant flowers in memory of those abused

CASA GRANDE — Students from six Casa Grande schools got a chance to get their hands dirty Friday planting flowers in front of City Hall. The planting was part of the City Attorney’s Office’s 15th annual Children’s Flower Garden event.

“We all have the freedom to be free from violence,” Casa Grande Mayor Pro Tem Donna McBride told the students. “By doing this today, and what you are starting today, is a message to every adult in our community that you understand it (child abuse) and that you’re standing up against it.”

2019 CG Children's Flower Garden

Casa Grande students replant the flower bed every year in memory of local children who have been victims of abuse. This year’s theme was a quote from Disney’s “The Lion King”: “Look inside yourself. You are more than what you have become.” The flowers were provided by Artistic Land Management. The Blue Notes, the Cougar Spirit Line and the band woodwind section from Casa Grande Union High School also performed for the students.

“We need to educate you — the children, the families and the community about domestic violence and child abuse. How to recognize the signs and put an end to it,” said Richard Rosales, community affairs manager for Arizona Public Service Co. He encouraged students to report any abuse they see to a family member or teacher.

This year’s guest speaker was Olivia Calderon, a singer who has performed on “America’s Got Talent” and is a detention officer for Tempe Police Department. She asked the students if they understood what domestic violence is.

“We know what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “So what do we do when we see that? We might not experience that at home. We might hear it from a friend.”

She encouraged them to go to a teacher, go to a family member or go to a police officer to report abuse. Calderon said as a detention officer she sees a lot of people who are arrested because of domestic violence and sees a lot of victims who have been removed from an unsafe situation.

She told the students that she would always be a friend they could come to in need and pointed out that their classmates are also friends they could go to in need.

Calderon also spoke of her experience on “America’s Got Talent,” her passion for music and her goals in life.

“No matter what the situation may be in your life right now, we have to go through. We have to go past those obstacles in our life. Don’t let anything stop you. If you set a goal, reach toward that goal,” she said. “Music has always been my passion. If you have a passion, take it as far as you possibly can. You can have many passions. Don’t limit yourself in life.”

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Prison inmate who walked away from Casa Grande work crew caught

CASA GRANDE — Arizona Department of Corrections officials say a minimum-custody inmate who walked away from an off-site work crew in Casa Grande is back in custody.

They say 38-year-old Joshua Speedling walked away from the crew at 8 p.m. Wednesday and that state and local law enforcement agencies were notified at that time.

The U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force apprehended Speedling on Thursday afternoon near Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix.

Corrections officials say Speedling will face new criminal charges and additional prison time.

They say Speedling was sentenced earlier this year to five years in prison on Maricopa County convictions of forgery, criminal possession of a forgery device and a dangerous drug violation.

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Pinal, Coolidge receive $15.3 million grant for Inland Port infrastructure

WASHINGTON — Arizona’s two senators played an integral part in helping Pinal County obtain a major grant that will fund infrastructure developments around Inland Port Arizona, a massive industrial park located at the southern tip of Coolidge.

Late Wednesday evening the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it had awarded two sizable Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grants to the city of Phoenix and Pinal County.

“Arizona’s infrastructure has to be able to keep up with our state’s rapid economic and population growth,” said Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., in a press release. “It is great to see both of these important projects, which I advocated strongly for, receive funding from the Department of Transportation.”

Phoenix will receive $24 million through the grant for a north-side rail expansion at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. A $15.3 million BUILD grant will also be awarded to Pinal County for an infrastructure improvement project near the Inland Port, located between Houser and Hanna roads. Pinal County was the lead applicant on the grant, with the city of Coolidge acting as a joint applicant.

In a letter signed by McSally and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and addressed to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the two senators cited the economic impact the 2,700-acre industrial park will have on Pinal County, such as job growth and increased property value, among the primary reasons to consider the project for the BUILD grant.

“I am pleased that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded a BUILD grant for Inland Port. Pinal County has a robust and growing economy, with a strong business climate, and this award serves as further recognition that Pinal County is a great place to do business,” said Mike Goodman, chairman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors. “We greatly appreciate the support and efforts of our congressional delegation, especially Senators McSally and Sinema, and Congressmen (Paul) Gosar and (Tom) O’Halleran, and we look forward to further development of the Inland Port.”

Nikola Motor Company announced plans to develop a 1-million-square-foot manufacturing facility at IPAZ last year. The company is expected to bring more than 3,500 direct and indirect jobs to the region over a 10-year period and will likely generate an economic output of $1.2 billion, according to a study completed by Elliott D. Pollack & Co.

The BUILD funding will be allocated toward roadway improvements along Hanna and Houser roads between Vail Road and State Route 87, updates to the railroad crossings at Houser and Hanna, and intersection improvements at SR 87 and Houser.

“I’m excited that (through) a joint effort we are all going to benefit,” said Coolidge Mayor Jon Thompson. “Once everybody knows that rail is really coming (to the site), I think you’re going to see (IPAZ) take off.”

According to the original grant application, Pinal County has committed $750,000 in matching funds for the project. Likewise, Saint Holdings LLC, which owns the IPAZ property, and the city of Coolidge will contribute matching funds in the amounts of $500,000 and $100,000, respectively.

The funds committed by the city will come from the taxes generated through the development of Nikola’s manufacturing site, City Manager Rick Miller said on Thursday.

“We’re excited that through everyone’s joint efforts that the IPAZ is going to get the infrastructure needed for us to continue attracting industry to this area and jobs,” he said.

According to Coolidge Economic Development Director Gilbert Lopez, the improvements to the infrastructure near Houser and Hanna roads will also go a long way in attracting other large-scale projects like Nikola to the area.

He noted that the improvements will likely attract even more attention on a national scale to the IPAZ, which already received plenty of interest from other developers since Nikola announced its intention to build at the industrial park.

Earlier this year, the city of Coolidge was also named the recipient of a $9.5 million grant through the Federal Aviation Administration, awarded to the Coolidge Municipal Airport for the rehabilitation of runway 5-23.

“This grant, on the heels of the FAA grant that (Coolidge) received, is significant for this area,” Miller said. “We have a sizable influx of federal funding to support (and implement) necessary infrastructure. It’s just going to help us out tremendously.”