Florence state prison

The town of Florence has noted not only the economic impact Arizona State Prison has had on the community but also the cultural and historical impact.

FLORENCE — Loss of the Florence State Prison Complex could mean a $1.3 million direct hit to town services, or about 13% of the town’s total state-shared revenues, according to data released by local officials.

“To a rural community like ours, this is not inconsequential," the town said in a prepared statement.

Town officials were startled Monday when Gov. Doug Ducey announced in his State of the State address that the state is likely to shutter Florence Complex. The move is expected to save the state $247 million in maintenance and repairs in the next three years.

Transferring employees to the nearby Eyman Complex will solve staffing shortages and improve overall safety, according to the governor. No Department of Corrections employees will lose their jobs, he said. Inmates would be transferred to Eyman and other prisons.

“The additional staff will allow Eyman Complex to become fully staffed, eliminating the Correctional Officer II vacancies and providing inmates with better access to programs and other services, such as enhanced second chance programs,” according to the governor’s announcement.

The town of Florence, meanwhile, is scrambling to soften the dent in its budget. “Preliminary estimates show the town could lose up to 3,600 prisoners and hundreds of permanent jobs upon the closure of the facility,” according to the town’s news release.

“The town is committed to working with our colleagues in Phoenix to maximize the use of the Pinal County jail (which currently uses only a third of its 1,500 beds), GEO Group facilities and CoreCivic facilities in town and to minimize the loss of residents by carefully studying any viable option. Should new facilities be desired, Florence has available land that is zoned and planned for this type of use.”

Although one of the state’s goals is saving money, the town said it is hopeful the state will upgrade the Florence prison property for a museum and tourism, similar to Yuma Territorial Prison. Vice Mayor John Anderson noted at Monday’s Town Council meeting that the former Alcatraz federal prison has become the biggest historical site in the San Francisco area.

“The Florence State Prison is a historic landmark and is woven into the very fabric of Florence. Its tower is proudly and prominently featured on our town logo and official seal. We take great pride in the partnerships we have developed at the Florence State Prison, and in the programming and beautification efforts that originate behind its walls but radiate throughout the region,” the town said.

The town further noted the state’s move means an uncertain future for the prison’s manufacturing and farming programs. This includes the "fabulous asset" Arizona Correctional Industries, which created tens of millions of dollars of industrial, commercial and residential products per year.

Under that umbrella are the Arizona Wild Horse and Burro Training and Holding Facility that trains wild horses and burros for adoption, and the Florence Fish Farm, which raises tilapia and catfish for commercial use. There are also 450 acres of farm land that harvests a variety of crops.

”Inmate labor is used around the region to help beautify streets and maintain landscaping," the town said. "We simply cannot afford to suddenly flip a switch and allow these programs to disappear from our region."

The statement also raised concerns about what effect this could have on local identity.

“We are concerned for our residents, who for so many years have shouldered the burdens and stigmas associated with being called a ‘prison town,’" the statement said. "Without legislative action, resources currently used in the community could dry up and could radically change this historic community and the county seat of the state’s fastest-growing county.”

The town noted Ducey referred to “The Arizona Way” in his speech Monday:

“The Arizona Way means taking care of all our residents — not just our prisoners, but also the rural communities in which they live and the jobs which they support,” the town said. “The Arizona Way is a collaborative approach that brings together parties to overcome difficult challenges. We fully agree with the governor’s parting words … ‘Let's demonstrate we can get things done…. That we can govern, and that we can do it together. It's how we do things here. It's The Arizona Way.’”

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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