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Biden ban on new private prison contracts will not reach Pinal ICE detainees
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s order that the Justice Department stop contracting with private prisons could eventually affect thousands of inmates — but not the roughly 3,000 illegal immigrants being held in private facilities in Pinal County.

Biden said last week that his executive order is part of an effort to promote racial equity and is needed to “stop corporations from profiteering off of incarcerating” people in facilities that he said are less humane and less safe.

But the order only applies to the Justice Department, which contracts with private firms to operate 12 prisons housing about 14,000 inmates nationwide. It does not affect Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with companies that hold immigrants awaiting hearings or deportation.

ICE’s Phoenix field office has contracts to hold immigrants at four facilities in Arizona: the Central Arizona and Eloy detention centers and the Florence and La Palma correctional centers, all run by CoreCivic Inc. in Pinal County The average daily detainee population for those units combined was 3,070 at the end of fiscal 2020, according to ICE data.

Advocates like Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, were disappointed with the order. She called it “an important first step” but said Biden needs to take the next step and end contracts immigration agencies have with private firms.

“We need to ask what purpose these prisons have besides locking people up for profit,” Cho said.

Cho studied the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy for the ACLU and found abysmal conditions, including threats of force and a lack of medical attention and legal information.

But CoreCivic insisted in a prepared statement that its facilities are “safe and secure for those in our care and our staff.”

“We’re extremely proud of the critically important services we’ve provided to the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) for more than two decades, along with our other federal, state and local partners in the 21 states we currently operate,” the company said.

As for the reason to keep working with private firms, the CoreCivic statement said those contracts provide state and federal government agencies the “flexibility to manage ups and downs in their populations” without having to build their own facilities. The statement also said the company has no role in determining how many inmates it gets, or for how long.

The company went on to say that it was not surprised by Biden’s order, since there has been a “steady decline in inmate populations over the past several years” from the Bureau of Prisons.

The order revives one issued in 2016 by President Barack Obama – which also did not deal with ICE contracts. When President Donald Trump took office in 2017, he reversed the Obama order.

Biden’s order does not end current private-prison contracts, it just directs the Justice Department not to renew them once they expire.

Cho said the failure to include immigrant detention facilities in the order is doubly troubling since there are better, safer ways to hold migrants.

“ICE doesn’t need to contract with private prisons to hold all these people,” Cho said, noting that the agency has capacity for 40,000 detainees at more than 220 public and private facilities.

ICE said it has detained 14,195 people since October in public and private facilities across the country. But instead of being held in prison, Cho argues that most immigrants awaiting trial should be on home detention with friends and family.

Clark Neily, vice president of criminal justice at the Cato Institute, said he was not impressed with Biden’s order.

He worries that private firms frozen out of contracts with one federal agency could just turn around and sign up with other federal or state agencies without making changes to the facilities or improving the lives of inmates. More prisons is not the answer, he said.

“I think it is an incredibly easy thing to do, it is basically window dressing,” Neily said of Biden’s order. “I would not consider this as substantive criminal justice reform.”

During his campaign, Biden said “the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants.” And in an email Friday, a White House spokesperson said the president “will take additional action in the future relating to the detention of undocumented immigrants.”

Cho said it’s time for him to live up to that promise now.

“Biden should cancel these contracts and withdraw the billions spent on immigration enforcement,” Cho said.

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Fire at Casa Grande tire store creates massive dark smoke cloud
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CASA GRANDE — A tire and truck fire Monday afternoon sent a cloud of black smoke billowing over downtown Casa Grande and the surrounding area.

The Casa Grande Fire Department learned of the blaze at Hartfield’s Tires, 875 E. Jimmie Kerr Blvd., around 2:45 p.m. Monday.

At 4 p.m. firefighters were still on the scene fighting the fire. According to the Casa Grande Fire Department only tires and a nearby truck were on fire, not the structure.

No one was injured in the blaze.

Dark black smoke rising into the sky could be seen from miles away Monday afternoon.

“Even in Stanfield you can see the fire,” one commenter noted on the popular Facebook site CG Chat.

Some onlookers posted video of the fire on social media sites and one commenter noted that tire fires emit toxic fumes.

Casa Grande tire fire 2/1/21

Traffic on Jimmie Kerr Boulevard and on the nearby railroad tracks was closed Monday afternoon due to the fire.

The Hartfield tire business has long been a landmark on Jimmie Kerr Boulevard. The shop was opened in 1968 by Pastor Willie Hartfield, the father of current owner James Hartfield, when Jimmie Kerr Boulevard was part of the bustling Arizona 84 highway.

The cause of the blaze is not known at this time. More information will be published when it becomes available.

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Florence area residents set up own fire department, fight first blaze
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FLORENCE — Residents south of Florence have formed their own volunteer fire department after spending years without a dedicated fire service. The new South Florence Volunteer Fire Department put out its first fire on Jan. 23.

Resident Larry Vincent said he broached the idea of creating a volunteer fire district or department with his neighbors after a house in the area burned on July 18.

No one came immediately to put out the fire after 911 was called, he said.

Florence Fire Department officials have said in the past that the department does not have the resources to cover the town and respond to a remote house fire, if no lives are in danger. Rural Metro Fire does not offer its subscription-based service in that area.

Instead, the community has set up a kind of emergency text message group with about 100 members who alert one another if there’s an emergency or fire of some type. That message group called 911 and then gathered available neighbors to respond to the fire. Neighbors formed a kind of bucket brigade, using fire extinguishers, buckets and anything at hand to try to put the fire out. They did eventually get the fire out and about an hour later a fire truck from a district near Oro Valley showed up to help.

That fire put the wheels in motion for Vincent.

“Everyone in the county knows this is a problem,” he said.

It can also be a problem for homeowners because a lot of insurance companies will not sell a homeowners policy for a property that is not covered by a fire department.

He started researching and reaching out to other small fire districts and departments in the area to see what it would take to start a volunteer fire department in the area.

He was able to purchase a 1985 full-sized pumper truck with 70,000 miles on it from the Bowie Fire District. Other districts, such as Bowie, Queen Valley and Golder Ranch, have donated or offered to sell used hoses, couplings, jackets, helmets, radios and other gear and provide help with training, Vincent said.

He registered the district as a business, purchased vehicle and business liability insurance for the district and is currently working on submitting the paperwork to make the department a nonprofit organization.

The department is leaving emergency medical care calls to private company American Medical Response, which already covers the area.

He also started working with the Pinal County Office of Emergency Management about how to set up the district, finding out if the county could help with funding and how to get the department into the 911 system.

Vincent said county officials said they didn’t have funds available to give him but they supported his idea for a district. In the meantime, Vincent has supplied most of the funds to start the department. He has a full-time job and is currently raising additional funds through the sale of T-shirts with the South Florence Fire Department’s logo.

The department does not plan to go to a subscription-based model, where residents would have to purchase an annual or monthly subscription for fire protection for their property, he said. Most of the neighbors have gone that route before and they want to make sure that everyone has access to fire protection regardless of whether they can pay for it or not.

The county 911 dispatch system told him he would need to submit some paperwork in order to be added to the system. He scheduled a meeting about that. In the meantime, the department is still relying on its text messaging group for emergency calls.

“It’s an uphill thing,” Vincent admitted.

Vincent said the area that the department covers stretches across about 375 square miles, from East Florence-Kevin Highway to the Tom Mix Monument on Pinal Pioneer Parkway and from 6 miles west of Florence Highway to 11 miles east of Florence Highway.

The department is also working with St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, which also has some firefighting equipment and trucks, to cover the distance.

The department responded to its first fire on Jan. 23 off State Route 79 at a home being rented by the Neil family, who have five children and numerous animals including dogs, goats, birds, fish and chickens.

Vincent said a neighbor called a member of the text messaging group who sent out a message to the entire group. The department’s four volunteers, two monks and a couple of assistants from the monastery were able to respond to the fire in about eight minutes. Vincent had to watch the action from the sidelines due to a recent surgery on his knee. During the cooler months, a couple of residents who are firefighters and live in Montana during the summer also volunteer at the department, Vincent said.

The department was unable to save the manufactured home, which burned very quickly, but they were able to prevent the fire from spreading to several outbuildings where some of the animals were being housed.

The family is now without a home for themselves and their animals, said Eirini Pajak, who does some of the administrative work for the department. The community has set up a GoFundMe site to raise money for the family, which can be found at https://gofund.me/22bb865b.

Suzanne Adams / Courtesy of Eirini Pajak  

The Neil family lost the home they were renting in a fire, but the new South Florence Volunteer Fire Department was able to prevent the fire from spreading to outbuildings where the family kept several animals.

Pajak said the family is currently living in a hotel thanks to the Red Cross. It has received multiple donations of clothes, but what the family really needs help with is finding a new home that can accommodate their animals. Anyone with information about a home that the family could rent can contact them through the GoFundMe page.

Vincent said anyone interested in purchasing a T-shirt or donating funds or equipment to the department can contact him at vincentL98@yahoo.com.

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Shope wants to expand gambling in Arizona, add more casinos
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PHOENIX — OK. So you think Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray will rush for at least 75 yards in an upcoming game.

Wanna bet on it?

That would become legal in Arizona under the terms of a plan by Gov. Doug Ducey. And you’d even be able to do that from your phone.

Also look for legalized wagering on “fantasy’’ leagues. If keno is your thing, that, too, would be available — but not everywhere.

And there could be more tribal casinos with more kinds of games.

It’s all in the details obtained Monday by Capitol Media Services about the multi-pronged proposal which would vastly expand what kind of legal wagering can occur here, both on and off-reservation.

But this is about more than providing easier access for Arizonans for a way to wager.

Most notably, the plan — and the deal Ducey has negotiated with tribes who currently have the exclusive right to most forms of gaming in Arizona — would generate new dollars for the state while allowing the governor to keep his promise of not raising taxes. In fact, depending on the revenues, they even could help Ducey finally get closer to his multi-year promise of moving the state’s income tax rate as close to zero as possible.

It’s a truly complex deal.

On one hand are the tribes.

Under the terms of a 2002 initiative they crafted and got voters to approve, they have been able to operate casinos in exchange for giving the state a share of the profits. That generated $31.7 million in the most recent quarter.

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who is sponsoring one of the versions of the plan, told Capitol Media Services that more casinos and more games, like craps, might keep people in Arizona with more options to gamble closer to home.

“Obviously, the allure of Vegas is always going to be there,’’ Shope said. “I, myself, go a handful of times a year.’’

But he also figures that there is an audience for local expanded gaming. Consider, Shope said, people who come to town for spring training or the Phoenix Open.

“For that person that is interested in doing something in the afternoon and evening when the ballgame’s over, they’re going to be able to go ahead and have that option,’’ he said.

That same revenue-sharing formula by the tribes would remain in place for the next 20 years. But more casinos and more games would presumably generate more dollars.

But the really big bucks — no one from the governor’s office is giving out figures — could come from the state’s share of newly authorized off-reservation gaming if the legislature approves.

Shope acknowledged this will result in a sharp increase in what’s legal in types of gambling in Arizona. But he said that it is, at least in part, an acknowledgment of reality.

Take fantasy league wagering.

“Fantasy sports has been played for years,’’ Shope said.

In essence, players “draft’’ real players for a fake team they have created. Then your team “plays’’ another fake team, with the winner decided based on a point system. This would involve having the state license the major players like DraftKings and, presumably, get a share of the wagering.

And it’s not just football and baseball. Those online sites permit wagering on everything from basketball and hockey to golf, soccer and NASCAR racing.

The bigger change involves being able to bet on collegiate and professional games.

The door to that was opened in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court voided the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. That federal law made it illegal for states to legalize sports wagering.

Ducey said in 2019 he was interested in having Arizona move into that territory.

But that was not a legal option here as a result of that 2002 initiative which not only gave tribes the right to operate casinos for the next 20 years but also specifically barred the state from implementing any form of gambling that did not exist at the time.

With those compacts expiring, that opened the door for Ducey to renegotiate.

For college sports, the only permissible form would be betting on the outcome of a game.

But for those seeking a bit more excitement, the law also would allow “prop bets’’ on professional games.

Short for “proposition bets,’’ these encompass pretty much anything other than the ultimate result or point spread. More to the point, they focus on the performance of an individual player.

The “where’’ of all that is a bit more complex.

What Ducey is proposing involves 20 licenses, with half reserved for the tribes. The other half will be divided up among Arizona sports teams or franchises.

So the Cardinals would be able to get one, as would the Diamondbacks, the Suns, the Coyotes, NASCAR and the Professional Golf Association. And they, in turn, would contract with secondary locations to serve as off-track betting parlors.

There would, however, be the option to actually sit at home — or anywhere — and bet by phone. That pleases Shope.

“The ease of being able to do it by phone is something that is definitely a desire from I think the average person that does this sort of stuff,’’ he said.

Shope described himself as “a big sporting nut.’’

“Not everybody is going to do something like that,’’ Shope explained. “But there is an appetite, I believe, to engage in this out there.’’

For those interested in something a bit different, the new deal negotiated by Ducey and now awaiting legislative approval also includes keno.

It’s kind of a lottery game, with bettors choosing numbers, but conducted far more frequently, potentially multiple times per hour. But until now, like sports wagering the 2002 tribal compacts forbid the state from offering it.

But don’t look to be able to make those bets from anywhere — or even where you can now buy a Lottery ticket. The plan gives that exclusive right to “fraternal organizations’’ like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Elks Club and other similar sites.

Shope said the restriction is justified. He said these organizations have been “suffering across the country’’ as younger people — he is 35 — aren’t “into doing that kind of thing any more.’’

“That’s why you see memberships in all these groups dwindling,’’ he said. Shope said he’s willing to help out — and give them the exclusive right to make money off of keno — because “they do a lot of good for the community.’’

It will still be the Arizona Lottery ultimately running the games and spitting out the winning numbers. And, like casino wagering, fantasy leagues and sports betting, the state will get a share of everything wagered.

In some ways, the odd-man out are the state’s horse tracks. The deal Ducey negotiated with the tribes precludes them from operating “racinos,’’ essentially allowing some forms of casino gaming.

But Shope said they had their chance.

He pointed out the tracks put their own initiative on the 2002 ballot, one that would give both them and the tribes the chance to operate casino games.

“It was resoundingly defeated,’’ Shope said.