Mesa Voting Tonight on Privatizing Jail Services With Controversial CoreCivic

Mesa Police Department
The embattled company known as CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, is known for operating some of the most dangerous prisons in the entire country.

One of those facilities has been so violent that it was nicknamed "Gladiator School" and had to be taken over by the state of Idaho, prompting the FBI to investigate the company.

What's not so well known is that the company also is in charge of running a handful of jails that house lower-level offenders charged with misdemeanors like shoplifting.

Those contracts make up just a small percentage of CoreCivic's business — it manages more than 40 prisons and immigration detention centers, but only five jails.

And that number will soon be even smaller.

After a group of lawyers found that CoreCivic was overcharging the city of Washington, D.C., by 31 percent while simultaneously violating public health standards, local officials opted to let the company's contract expire.

Meanwhile, in Marion County, Indiana, so much drug trafficking was going on inside the local jail under CoreCivic's watch that the sheriff had to come and conduct a raid. The county is now looking to cut ties with the company.

Yet despite all this, Mesa's city council is voting tonight on whether to hand over its inmate population to CoreCivic. Mesa would be the first city in Arizona to privatize its jail operations.

Numerous local civil rights groups have already raised concerns about the plan. The list includes the ACLU, NAACP, LUCHA, American Friends Service Committee, Black Lives Matter Phoenix, and Justice That Works, among others.

The proposal originated with the Mesa Police Department. Its rationale is that the move would save time and money. Currently, Mesa police officers are responsible for transporting inmates to the Fourth Avenue jail run by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which ends up eating up a lot of their time.

CoreCivic would take over those responsibilities and house the inmates at their Florence correctional facility, at an estimated savings of $1.5 million a year. (The accuracy of that figure is disputed by those who oppose privatization, since the Mesa Police Department put out the request for proposals back in 2012, and the bids are now five years old.)

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Mesa Police Department

You might reasonably wonder: How could contracting with a company that's in business to make a profit possibly be cheaper than getting those same services from the county?

At the city council study session on Friday, Carlos Melendez, a business development executive for CoreCivic, chalked it up to economies of scale: The company saves money on food, for instance, because it qualifies for volume discounts.

But opponents of the plan pointed out another way that the company saves money: Paying its employees less than they'd earn at a state or county-run facility.

Government audits have repeatedly shown that CoreCivic's facilities struggle with high employee turnover as a result of the low pay and difficult working conditions, which leads to prisons being drastically understaffed and dependent on inexperienced and minimally trained guards

That in turn creates an environment that's dangerous for both inmates and staff. Which is why you end up hearing stories about guards at CoreCivic-run prisons getting killed when inmates armed with mop handles and trash can lids decide to riot or prisoners dying after mysteriously suffering from a skull fractures.

None of which came up in the Mesa Police Department's presentation.

"Quite frankly, this is the first that I’ve heard of a lot of these issues," council member Jeremy Whitaker admitted toward the end of the public comment period, which went on for close to an hour. "I would assumed that we would have done a lot more vetting in this process."

Commander Michael Beaton said that the police department had conducted a site visit at the Florence facility and been satisfied with the conditions there.

"One of the biggest goals for me was to make sure that our inmates were going to get comparable or better treatment at this CoreCivic facility than they are with Maricopa County," he said.

That's not saying a whole lot, since the county jail has its fair share of issues. But the difference, activists point out, is that government-run facilities are subject to greater oversight. As a privately owned company, CoreCivic isn't obligated to publicly disclose information like how many inmates file complaints or grievances, just to name one example.

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Carlos Melendez of CoreCivic addresses the Mesa City Council.
And on Friday, Melendez, the representative from CoreCivic, dodged one question after another. 

Could he comment on the fact that some police departments were terminating their contracts with CoreCivic due to mismanagement and cost overruns?

"I cannot. I do not know what you’re speaking of, sir."

Are there any pending lawsuits against the company?

"I'm sure there’s something, but that’s not an arena that I stay in."

Has anyone ever died at CoreCivic's facilities in Florence and Eloy?

"I would be more than happy to communicate that to the appropriate folks and get you some data on that question."

That last question is easily answered with a quick Google search: Fifteen people have died at Eloy since 2003, making it the deadliest immigration detention center in the country.

But there are other issues with the proposed plan that city officials have so far failed to address.

For instance, since the precise details of the contract haven't been negotiated yet, it's unclear if CoreCivic would require Mesa to meet a occupancy quota, as has historically been the case at privately run state prisons in Arizona.

The obvious fear is that, given the choice between arresting more people or getting hit with large fines when that quota isn't met, police will choose the former. 

Beth Houck, a retired public defender, pointed out another problem at Friday's study session: Currently, many inmates participate in the work-release program, which allows them to leave the jail during the day and reduces the likelihood that they lose their jobs as a result of their arrest.

But since the Florence facility is over an hour from Phoenix, and inmates typically rely on family members to transport them from jail to work and then back again, that might no longer be possible.

In theory, tonight's meeting is intended to be an opportunity for the Mesa Police Department and CoreCivic to answer some of these questions before the council votes on whether to move forward with the deal. There will also be an opportunity for public comment.

The meeting starts at 5:45 p.m., and Black Lives Matter Phoenix and other partner groups are holding a protest starting at 5 p.m.

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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.