Eloy Detention Center vigil

Arizona state Sen. Martin Quezada speaks July 13, 2019, outside Eloy Detention Center.

FLORENCE — The town of Florence’s population is roughly 11,000 people, as most people understand the term. But officially, the population is 28,000 when everyone behind bars is included.

A Glendale-area legislator sees something wrong with this picture and believes inmates should be counted where their true homes are.

“Ideally, they should be counted where their home residence is before they were incarcerated,” Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada told PinalCentral in a phone interview. “Obviously most of these individuals are going to be released at some point as well, and they will be returning back home to those same communities. It makes sense, in my eyes at least, to count them where their true residence is.”

If it sounds like a paperwork nightmare, Quezada said a few other states are doing it, most recently Nevada and Maryland. A recent conversation he had with a Maryland legislator convinced him Arizona should try it, too.

Legislative District 8, home to Florence and Eloy, has the most prisoners. Conversely, at least one report indicates Quezada’s district has the most people away in prison, he said. Counting them at home “would heavily impact all the heavily minority and lower socioeconomic-status districts in the state,” he said. “Districts like mine … would all see some increase in population, if we were to enact this law.” He said he plans on making the rounds among state leaders and talking up the idea in the fall.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he would use his own leadership position to make sure such a bill goes nowhere. He said it would nullify the state’s historic bargain with Florence, that if the town agreed to take the state’s only prison at the time, it should derive some benefit from it.

Shope further noted that local emergency responders and prosecutors respond to the prisons, and it costs the community to serve that population. He said Quezada believes his bill “would help the Democratic caucus increase their numbers in the Legislature.”

Quezada replied if this is so, “then wouldn’t the opposite also be true? That not changing the law benefits Republicans? And if that’s the case, I think there’s partisanship on his side more than my side, because they’re the ones benefiting from this rigged system.”

Serving the prisons

Florence pays for the prisons in several ways: Roads must be repaired more frequently because of traffic; utilities require regular maintenance and replacement; local police are called to investigate incidents and crimes at some facilities; the Fire Department responds to medical emergencies and fires at the prisons, Ben Bitter, assistant to the town manager, said.

Mayor Tara Walter added: “When 52% of the town’s general fund operations are funded by state-shared revenues received by the state of Arizona, as allocated by the population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau each year, it is easy to see why this is such an important issue to Florence.

“If this misguided legislation were to pass, it would make our community less safe and dramatically decrease the high quality of life our residents enjoy,” Walter said.

Bitter noted similar impacts would be felt across the state in Globe, San Luis, Kingman, Safford, Eloy, Winslow and Douglas. As the town’s registered lobbyist, Bitter said he will attend every committee hearing and knock on as many doors as possible to ensure the bill’s defeat.

Eloy City Manager Harvey Krauss said he would likewise contact his legislators to make sure they actively oppose the bill. He called the idea “fundamentally unfair and unworkable.” His city’s population of 19,000 includes 7,000 inmates in CoreCivic private prisons.

Krauss said if there’s a demonstration or other problem at the prisons, they call Eloy police. He couldn’t immediately say how Eloy’s finances and services would be affected if Quezada’s bill became law.

Bitter added that inmates are arguably part of the community. Some of them do work for Florence Unified School District. Others pick up trash and weeds in the downtown area. More participate in the Wild Horse and Burro Program, the fish farm or the large alfalfa farming operations, Bitter said.

Shouldn’t Florence get something out of having the prisons?

“That’s not untrue. … That’s a fair concern,” Quezada said. “But counting individuals in their home districts doesn’t necessarily take away all of that ability to account for the contributions we make to society. There are always ways to alter state-shared revenue if we needed to do that,” he said, but added he’s not proposing that at this time.

The U.S. Census Bureau says inmates, and other groups of people not living in typical housing, live in “group quarters.” Another category is military barracks. The men and women serving at Luke Air Force Base, near Quezada’s district, are counted there instead of their hometowns. Is that fair?

“I think that’s a fair issue to look at as well, to make sure we’re counting everybody fairly,” Quezada said. But he added there’s a big difference between an Air Force base and a prison.

“The bases typically get broad political support. The politicians that represent those areas are constantly reaching out, not only to the base itself, but to the members of the base” for their opinions and input. “They are a very valued constituency,” the senator said.

Meanwhile, “How often has Rep. Shope gone into one of the prisons and talked to the inmates about what their concerns are, what their values are? Or what types of law changes they need?” Quezada asked. “I’d guess it’s a very safe assumption that he has very rarely done that, if ever. … so we should count them in their home districts.” Quezada said Shope likely has contact with the prison administrators, who are biased in favor of lodging as many people as possible in their prisons.

Uphill battle

It’s been tried before; Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, proposed such a bill in the past. Quezada and others were co-sponsors. Republican leadership refused to even give it a hearing in committee. But Quezada said he’s not ready to give up.

As a registered Democrat in a Republican-controlled Legislature, “any bill I propose is going to have an uphill battle,” he said. “… But I think in terms of public support, and in terms of good public policy, I think the momentum is absolutely on my side. You look at other states that aren’t as divided in a partisan way as Arizona is, and other states that have worked in a bipartisan fashion to do what’s best for the people, they have looked at this issue and they’ve addressed it.

“… This doesn’t change at all the ability of any resident of Florence or any community in the state of Arizona to elect their leaders. … The only difference is the district lines may look a little different.

“… I think at the very least, it’s worthy of discussion,” Quezada said. “It’s worth us talking about the way we count people and if that system is fair or not. And whether it provides representation to the people of the state of Arizona in the way that it should. I think that’s a very healthy conversation that we should be having.”