A site just north of Marana has emerged as the likely home of a 3,200-bed prison that would house almost all of Arizona's adult female convicts in a facility built and operated by a private corporation, state corrections officials confirmed last week.
The prison would be the largest privatized correctional facility ever built in the United States. Critics of for-profit prisons say they are marshaling forces to protest what they call a "Super Prison" and claim corrections officials are quietly trying to slip the facility past the public.
The Arizona Department of Corrections has received proposals from three corporations for the construction of the prison, which is expected to cost more than $40 million, said Lacy Scott, ADC's deputy administrator for privatization contracts.
ADC officials would not provide a time frame for the facility's construction, but the prison could break ground as early as this fall under preliminary plans disclosed in December by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee which authorized funding for the prison, according to minutes of the hearing.
Two companies have listed sites near the Pinal Air Park as their chosen locations for the prison, while a third corporation listed the area around the air park and an alternative site in Mobile, southwest of Phoenix, as their choices, Scott said.
The air park straddles the Pinal-Pima county line four miles west of Interstate 10 near Marana's northern boundary and is home to Evergreen Air Center, a private company that retrofits and stores commercial aircraft, as well as the the National Guard's Western Army Aviation Training Center and a federal law enforcement training center.
Two of the air park locations for the prison are on the Pinal County side of the line, and the third is located "on a number of acres of land owned by Pima County in Pima County adjacent to the Pinal County border," Scott said.
Citing the competitive bidding process now under way, ADC officials are reluctant to identify more specific locations or costs until public hearings are held later this month, ADC spokesperson Jim Robideau said.
A public hearing in Marana is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 23 at the Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites, 8373 N. Cracker Barrel Road, northwest of Interstate 10 and Cortaro Road.
Two hearings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 22 and 24 at the Holiday Inn, 777 N. Pinal Ave. in Casa Grande.
Management and Training Corporation, based in Centerville, Utah, had proposed building the prison on the Pima County side of the air park. The company currently operates the 450-bed Marana Correctional Treatment Facility, 12610 W. Silverbell Road.
Correctional Services Corporation, headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., is seeking to build the prison in either Mobile or on the Pinal County side of the air park.
Cornell Companies, based in Houston, also has proposed building on the Pinal side. It was the only one of the three companies to respond to requests for comment about the proposed prison.
Paul Doucette, vice president of corporate communications for Cornell, said his company considered the Pinal Air Park area to be an ideal location.
"We look for a place that is not going to be nearby somebody's preschool or somebody's neighborhood. We look for a place that is going to have, within a reasonable distance, prospective employees. Because we're so interested in treatment and preparing the inmate for the time when they leave the facility, we look for a place where there's an opportunity to partner with local businesses for job skill creation and training, and that's the case with Evergreen and the air park area," Doucette said.
ADC assigns custody levels to inmates that range from one, which is assigned to prisoners who pose the least security threat, to five, the category of inmates that pose the most severe threat.
Robideau said the proposed women's prison would house inmates in custody levels two, three and four - essentially meaning a medium and high security prison. ADC's requirements for the housing of level four prisoners include a double perimeter fence, at least two independent methods for monitoring inmates and " substantial level of control."
As of March 31, ADC had 1,016 women incarcerated, according to an ADC report. Female prisoners represents 8.4 percent the state's total inmate population.
The state has three privately operated prisons it oversees. Female prisoners are currently held at the ADC-operated Perryville facility in west Phoenix, Robideau said.
Overcrowding, a projected surge in inmate population and no funds for the construction of state-run facilities led to ADC's decision to propose the privatization of the women's prison, he said.
"As of today, we're 4,000 inmates overcrowded and we're looking at a range of options for reducing that number," Robideau said in a phone interview July 11, referring to the total inmate capacity for men and women statewide. "There's simply no state-operated prisons scheduled to be built."
Caroline Isaacs, director of Tucson's chapter of the American Friends Services Committee, said her organization and a slew of others concerned about prison reform plan to vigorously fight the state's plan.
"It's monstrous. It's a Super Prison that's never been done before," Isaacs said. "If they build this prison it will be 50 percent larger than the largest state-run prison for women in the country and three times bigger than any private prison for women. It's an experiment, a Frankenstein's monster of a facility and there's a long documented history of problems with private prisons."
The AFSC is a Quaker organization with a long history of advocating prison reform. Isaac said she's been in contact with organizations that include the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP of Phoenix, the University of Arizona's Students Against Sweatshops, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the Pima County Interfaith Council's Prison Task Force, and Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs, a union that represents police and correction officers.
"There's a lot of opposition and outrage forming up against this," Isaacs said.
She also believes ADC is going out of it's way not to publicize the upcoming public hearings for fear of a "public outcry."
"They're absolutely keeping it quiet. It's pretty much the standard to not publicize these hearings because they don't want public opposition to arise if people in the area find out what they're planning. They have a hearing, but they just advertise it in the back of the paper somewhere in fine print and hope no one shows up," Isaacs said.
Robideau said the state was only required to publish the notice of public hearing in one newspaper, but chose to run the announcement in three - The Arizona Republic, the Tucson Citizen and the Casa Grande Dispatch.
Marana Town Manager Mike Hein said his staff has received only limited information about the project.
"We're hoping to get more information at the public hearing," Hein said. "We have a general idea of the type of facility and location, but not much else beyond that."
The town was notified of the hearing in a letter from ADC to Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. dated July 2.
A copy of the letter obtained from the town listed an incorrect date of the hearing, misidentified the location of the prison site as the "Pinal County Air Park in the Town of Marana," cited the wrong Arizona Revised Statute that governs the hearing and misidentified the company that proposed building in Pima County.
Sutton said representatives from Management and Training Corporation met individually with other Marana Town Council members last week, but have yet to meet with him.
"It's all very preliminary at this point. Some council members have expressed that they're pleased with the construction tax and other revenue the project may generate for the town. I'm trying to keep an open mind. There's some concern there, but I think we'll have to just get more information before we can really evaluate the situation," Sutton said.