I am writing in response to the AP article “Inmates: Arizona lacks adequate coronavirus plan in prisons.”

It seems that prisons are in the news a lot, lately: health concerns, prison closures, an inmate lawsuit.

I volunteer at a prison in Florence through my church, which offers a weekly Communion service for some of the yards, so I see the prison first-hand. Not as an inmate or as an employee there, but as a kind of neutral third party. I’d like to offer some insights on the subject of prisons while the subject is in the news.

Florence closure: More investigation

This year, during the state of the state address, Gov. Ducey announced a plan to close the prison at Florence, citing savings of $247 million. To be clear, Florence is home to several prisons, state, federal, county, public and private, including the Eyman Complex, just next to the 1909-built Florence prison proposed to be closed. It’s unclear exactly where the savings would come from, but ongoing maintenance and repairs at the old prison were cited as the culprit. The trouble is, all the inmates would have to be transferred to other facilities. Although Eyman could hold some of them, the governor’s proposal calls for sending many of the inmates to county jails and others to private prisons. Even if payments for private, for-profit prisons could cost less than the state-run facility does, transferring prisoners will cost the state some money in the form of regular payments it will need to make. A more thorough investigation is definitely warranted in order to determine whether transfer of prisoners to private prisons or county jails makes sense, and whether the ongoing cost inherent in for-profit prisons outweighs the one-time renovation costs of Florence prison, plus the economic and employment hits that the area will sustain.

Employee pay: a problem of 15-plus years

On Saturday, I was at a steak fry in Coolidge that the Pinal County Mounted Posse puts on as a fundraiser for the Junior Parada in Florence. I spoke to a gentleman who has worked in the prison for 15 years. Not a correctional officer, but responsible for prison upkeep and maintenance, this gentleman is on the yards and in contact with prisoners every day. He has never seen a pay increase in all the years he has worked there. Aware of the 15-plus-year stagnant pay problem, Arizona’s last budget, passed in 2019, provided 10% pay increases for correctional officers, and Gov. Ducey has proposed a further 5% raise for this year’s budget. However, because of workforce classifications, only correctional officers, not prison personnel classified as “administrative,” are covered by these raises. As we have seen with teachers, nurses and correctional officers, stagnant pay is a big factor in employee recruiting and retention.

Current health-related situation

All volunteer-related activity at the prison in Florence has been canceled for now. This is an important measure taken to limit inmate exposure to COVID-19, because prison populations, thanks to the close proximity of their dwelling spaces, are at particular risk of contagion. Health care in the prisons has long been a concern. Your article points out that an inmate-initiated lawsuit asked a judge to require a COVID-19 plan in the prisons, but this is hardly the first time prison-related health care has been scrutinized. Last July, Arizona prison health care was taken over by a new contractor, Centurion, after years of accusations and lawsuits against the prior provider, Corizon. It would appear that changing providers has not created sufficient change in addressing the problems of the past. Additionally, Centurion has been found to have donated to several prominent Arizona politicians, including Gov. Ducey, seven federal congresspeople and seven state legislators. Lastly, Centurion faces problems common to prison health care providers. For example, there is currently a shortage of nurses and other health professionals at the prison, which is an on-going, system-wide phenomenon.

Anti-crime hard-liners might argue that prison is a place of punishment and that money spent on inmates could be spent elsewhere, but ultimately faulty prison health care winds up costing the state and the public much more in the long run.

Nobody likes to think about prisons, and the topic is neither a politically popular nor socially attractive one, but thinking about them thoroughly before a problem develops is vastly better than after: As the adage says, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Neal Carter is a San Tan Valley-based lawyer and Republican candidate for Arizona House in District 8, which includes much of Pinal County.

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