Despite massive public opposition, the Mesa City Council voted in favor of privatizing the city's jail operations last night.
The city will enter into a contract with CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, which rebranded itself last fall amid numerous allegations of sexual abuse and violence inside its prisons and jails.
Inmates charged with misdemeanors, who currently are housed at the Fourth Avenue jail in downtown Phoenix, will be shipped out to the Florence Correctional Center in Pinal County once that contract goes into effect. The transition is expected to take place later this year.
It's hard to overstate what an unpopular decision this was. So many people showed up to raise concerns about the plan that it was standing room only in the council chambers. A second room had to be opened up for overflow seating.
At the meeting's start, Mayor John Giles announced that too many people had signed up to speak against the proposal. Only 12 would get a chance to do so, he said.
"Talk with your neighbors and friends and get together and decide which of you are going to speak," he told the crowd.
In retrospect, that should have been the the first sign that he had no intention of actually listening to anyone who'd bothered to come out for the meeting.
After the 12 speakers finished voicing their concerns about private prisons in general and CoreCivic's track record in particular, Mayor Giles informed them that they were all wrong.
"This is how jail reform happens, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "What you want is jail reform. And you are arguing against it tonight."
Giles was referring to the fact that some of the people who were at the city council meeting last night were the same ones who spent years calling attention to the dangerous, inhumane conditions inside the jail under Sheriff Joe Arpaio's watch. A number of them were active in the campaign to close down Tent City.
"For the last several years, advocates for human rights and for constitutional rights have been asking bodies like this to do something about the Maricopa County jail system," he said, sounding both irritated and exhausted. "That's the context that this originates from."
Using the county jail's problems as justification for handing over low-level offenders to a company with a long track record of human rights abuses is willfully obtuse. The activists who campaigned to close Tent City were never suggesting that an even less transparent for-profit facility should take its place. Rather, they wanted to see fewer people getting incarcerated in the first place — and better conditions for those who were.
"It was shitty, and we knew it was shitty," Gudin Ryan, a Mesa resident, put it. "But with this, we're stuck in a box."
The two council members who voted against privatization, David Luna and Jeremy Whitaker, suggested that Mesa should give Penzone more time to fix the county's jail system before pulling out entirely.
"How much time did we give Sheriff Joe?" Whitaker asked rhetorically. "How much money are we paying to the county in fees for all the lawsuits that he incurred?"
"I'd say if we back down now, we're going to give Paul Penzone years and years," Giles responded. "Nothing's going to happen until we hold his feet to the fire."
It's hard not to wonder if other members of the council who voted in favor of parting ways with the MCSO were simply joining in on the partisan backlash against Penzone. (See also: Republican lawmakers' decision to take away $1.6 million in state funding from his office.)
But if that was the case, none of them wanted to admit it. Aside from Giles, none explained their votes, and they quickly vanished as soon as the meeting came to an end, presumably in hopes of avoiding the angry mob that had begun chanting "Modern day slavery! Modern day slavery!" and "CCA, go away."
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Notably absent from the city council meeting were any residents who openly supported privatization. Which isn't to say that none exist. Given that this is Arizona we're talking about, it seems safe to say there are plenty of people in Mesa who only care about what their tax bill looks like, and will go along with anything that purports to save the city money.
It also seems highly likely that there are plenty of Mesa residents who don't care about the rights of incarcerated people or the conditions inside private jail facilities. They just aren't going to go to a city council meeting and say so.
But, ironically, they were the ones whose voices got heard.