By Teri Walker–
The nearly 350 people who turned out for a public hearing about a proposed 1,000-bed private prison in Winslow were overwhelmingly supportive Thursday evening, as city, county and state leaders joined with citizens to urge the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) to elect to build a new prison in the community.
“I personally will cry if my district doesn’t get this prison,” said State Senator Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, addressing DOC Director Charles “Chuck” Ryan.
In January, the DOC sought proposals from private prison operators to fulfill the state’s purported need to provide 5,000 new prison beds. The companies being considered are CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), which is proposing construction in Eloy; The Geo Group, which has proposed facilities for Yuma and Perryville; La Salle Corrections, the company proposing to build in Winslow; and Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which is seeking facilities in Yuma and Coolidge.
The DOC anticipates making a final decision about awards after Sept. 16.
While there were detractors to the Winslow prison plan, most of the public comments made during the mandated hearing implored the DOC to select Winslow to provide 1,000 new beds in a 183,373-square-foot facility that would be located adjacent to the existing state prison at the south end of Winslow.
“If it were 20 years ago and I were being asked if Winslow should become a prison town, I might have a different answer,” said Chris Anderson, president of the Winslow Chamber of Commerce. “But we already are a prison town, and we’re not putting (the new prison) in anyone’s backyard who doesn’t already have a prison in their backyard.”
Representatives from the Winslow Unified School District, Little Colorado Medical Center, Mayor Robin Boyd, Police Chief Stephen Garnett and Navajo County Supervisor Jesse Thompson were among the community and area leaders who spoke favorably of the proposed prison.
“There is no statistical data that shows a prison population will increase crime,” said Garnett. “That has not happened in Winslow and it will not.
“We are ready for the city to move forward and I’m putting pressure on you, Mr. Ryan; we’re waiting for the yes vote,” Garnett concluded lightheartedly, to enthusiastic applause.
Marie LaMar of Winslow expressed her opposition to a new prison.
Alluding to an advertisement for the public hearing which touted promises of new jobs and revenue for the local economy she said, “This indeed is sugar-coated information and pretty much what we heard 20-plus years ago.”
She went on to cite that $27 million in wages is lost every year due to prison and railroad employees who work in Winslow, but spend their paychecks and live in other communities.
“People choose not to live in prison towns,” LaMar said.
She said of the 300 corrections employees working at the Winslow state prison, only 75 live in Winslow. LaMar asserted studies show this ratio is common in prison towns and there’s no reason to think the employees of a new prison would choose to live in Winslow, thereby calling into question whether the city will actually realize the benefits of 250 new jobs.
“We as citizens will be asked to pay for all of the costs of bringing a new prison here, which is estimated to be beyond $10 million,” she continued.
In remarks made earlier in the meeting, City Manager Jim Ferguson said the city could support 1,000 additional beds without having to make infrastructure improvements.
“This won’t cost the city hardly anything, but there will be lots of benefits,” said Ferguson.
Asked about the distance between more than $10 million in costs to the city and “hardly anything,” LaSalle Managing Director and Co-Founder Billy McConnell said, “The higher cost estimates relate to 5,000 beds, which would require the city to upgrade its sewer system and things like that. For 1,000 beds, which is what we’re proposing here, they don’t have to make infrastructure improvements.”
McConnell described the Louisiana-based LaSalle’s approach to prison operation, emphasizing the programs the firm has developed that are aimed at rehabilitation and recidivism.
Celebrate Recovery is a faith-based addiction recovery program LaSalle originated in its Monroe, La., facility. In the first year, 14 of the 16 inmates who participated graduated from the program. So far this year, 200 inmates have graduated and more than 400 are enrolled in the program in Monroe.
McConnell’s son, Clay, earned his Master of Divinity degree at a seminary college and worked in the ministry before going to work for LaSalle and developing the company’s in-house ministry programs.
“I wish you could be there with me and Clay at graduation, and see a man who hasn’t seen his mother in 10 years, and who probably hasn’t wanted to see her, hug her and cry,” said McConnell. “It makes all the risks that we incur by putting our life savings and all we own on the line. It makes it all worth it.”
“We are losing a generation to addiction,” said Senator Allen. “When I hear (McConnell) talk about these programs, it reminds us it’s not enough to keep people behind locked doors. We can help change their lives and give hope. It’s honorable to work to help people who have lost their way.”
Allen said she admits she was “leery and worried” about the idea of private prisons at first. “But the facts are we have to have prisons, we have to do what’s affordable and the state is broke.
“The prisoners we’re housing out of state are costing the state money and we need to bring them back,” she concluded.
Caroline Isaacs, program director for American Friends Service Committee of Tucson, disputed the need for additional prisons, saying Arizona added only 65 new prisoners to the state prison system in 2010. In a written statement, she attributed the number to an Arizona Auditor General report.
She cautioned that Winslow could get left holding the bag if there are not enough prisoners to fill the new facility, and questioned whether the bond process used to fund the prison would fall on Winslow taxpayers to repay should the prison default.
Isaacs’ colleague Matthew Lowen asked what the recidivism rate was for LaSalle facilities and referenced the eight prisoners who have escaped from the company’s prisons in the past six years.
McConnell responded that he didn’t have the rates for all of the company’s facilities, but could report the company took over a facility in 2007, and within three years had reduced recidivism by 14 percent.
McConnell had previously addressed the issue of escapees, noting, “We have never had an employee hurt to the extent that they couldn’t work the next day, and no citizen has ever been hurt. Every single inmate that ever escaped has been returned to custody or accounted for.”
In response to Isaacs, following the meeting, McConnell clarified that the bond structure for the proposed Winslow prison is a revenue bond, which will be paid for by the revenue generated by the facility, and the city cannot be held liable for repayment. During the meeting, Clay McConnell, director of offender programming said, “The bonds cannot reflect on the town of Winslow.
During the nearly three hour meeting that was held in sweltering conditions in the performing arts center at Winslow High School, speaker after speaker noted their long-standing ties to Winslow’s construction, ranching and other industries, and implored the DOC to recognize the city is in great need of jobs.
“I moved to Winslow 32 years ago. If you want to know about this place, just watch the Pixar movie ‘Cars’–we’re Radiator Springs. We dried up,” said Dr. Greg Hackler. “The prison came, it brought jobs, it brought the trickle down. Please consider us.”
John McCauley, who said his family has been in the area since the 1870s, said, “How can jobs be negative? Watch the news, there aren’t jobs anywhere.”
David Harkin of Winslow said he watched the deterioration of Winslow in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We lost Route 66, logging and a lot of railroad employees,” said Harkin.
Saying the opening of the state prison in Winslow helped revitalize the community, he concluded, “I’m proud to be a prison town, and not a ghost town.”
Offering an opposing perspective, Daniel Dizcaya said he has lived in the area since 1959 and is worried another prison would deepen Winslow’s identity as a prison town. “Are we going to be another Florence? Another Douglas?”
One of the final speakers, Elaina Chacon, who with her husband owns Joe’s Glass in Winslow, spoke in a voice choked with emotion as she said of operating a business during difficult economic times, “It’s hard, it really is. Knowing that jobs are coming in, even 200 jobs, that’s a lot for us.”
Alluding to the renovations and beautification efforts undertaken in Winslow in recent years (as many speakers did), Chacon said she thinks Winslow has become a more desirable place to live. “Things are changing for us now. We’re on a fast track to something nice,” she noted.
In an interview following the meeting, Senator Allen said, “I understand people’s concerns about prison operations, but private or government, everyone has problems because of the nature of the work. But, if we’re going to save the state money, we need these extra beds.”
She explained that the inmates who are currently housed out of state would be brought back to Arizona to inhabit the new prisons.
“The RFP (request for proposal) was really tough. The state will be closely monitoring and visiting these new prisons,” she said, providing strict oversight of operations.
“The savings we’ll see for these new prison beds are mostly capital investment from not having to build the prisons.
“The state school facilities program is $1.3 billion in debt. We can’t keep taking on capital debt,” said Allen.
Ryan said citizens can send comments referencing “5,000 Beds” to ADC Procurement Services, 1645 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix, Ariz. 85007. Letters should be received before Sept. 16.
Photos By Teri Walker
Arizona Department of Corrections Director and former Winslow State Prison Warden Charles Ryan (left) addresses a crowd of 350 people interested in the proposed private prison in Winslow as Clay McConnell and Billy McConnell of LaSalle Corrections listen. Senator Sylvia Allen (top right) expressed support of building private prisons to alleviate state budget concerns. Winslow citizen Marie LaMar (bottom right) is opposed to bringing another prison to town.