Thousands of Arizona Convicts Held Out-of-State Would Come Home Under Proposed State Budgets

Thousands of Arizona convicts held out-of-state in at least two private prisons would be coming home this year under budgets proposed by state leaders.

The prisons in question are:

* Huerfano County Correctional Center in Walsenburg, Colorado. Capacity: 752 beds. Held 676 Arizona inmates as of yesterday. Corrections Corporation of America's contract with Arizona expires March 8, 2010.

*Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, Oklahoma. Capacity: 2,160. Held 2,054 Arizona inmates as of yesterday, and also holds a few inmates from Hawaii. CCA's contract with Arizona expires May 1, 2010.

*Great Plains Correction Facility in Hinton, Oklahoma. Capacity: 2,000. Held 1,763 Arizona inmates as of yesterday. Cornell Companies Incorporated's contract with Arizona expires in September.

The budget proposal by state legislators would end contracts only for the CCA prisons, while Governor Janice Brewer's budget cancels Arizona's relationship with all three.

CCA announced this morning it would close its two prisons in Oklahoma and Colorado if the contracts with Arizona aren't renewed.

Louise Jacob, spokeswoman for the Tennessee-based company, tells New Times that workers at the Huerfano facility will receive their layoff notices "very soon," and were told of the impending closure yesterday. The same fate is likely to befall employees at Diamondback in a few weeks, she says, though CCA is hopeful that Arizona or another state will rent inmate space and keep the prisons open.

Interestingly, CCA's news release says the company runs six companies in Arizona -- but none of them house Arizona prisoners.

Many of the about 5,000 inmates expected to come back to Arizona will be held in temporary beds until new prison space opens up, says Barrett Marson, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Brewer's budget for state agencies provides a detailed timeline on the transfer of prisoners on page 36, and her budget summary says the change-up will save Arizona about $87 million.

The inmates are all men classified as minimum- or medium-security, Marson says. Some are foreign nationals.

Having just seen Con-Air over the weekend on cable, we asked Marson whether problems would be expected during the transfer of so many inmates.

"We hope not," he said. "We safely move inmates between facilities all of the time."

We're not sure why Arizona held prisoners out of state to begin with -- if it has been costing the state tens of millions of dollars unnecessarily. For sure, the move will make it easier for some inmates to receive visits from family members and friends. Oh, and maybe their gang associates, too.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.