East Valley police agencies are looking to operate a jail of their own in Mesa to avoid the rising cost of bringing inmates to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s lockup in downtown Phoenix.
Mesa is leading the effort to research whether a private contractor could hold inmates for less money as the sheriff’s office prepares to hike housing fees by 25 percent.
Mesa police Chief Frank Milstead said his department’s research has found a good model at privately run jails in California. The facilities are less costly and reduce the number of physical confrontations between inmates and the staff, he said.
And any department using the regional East Valley jail would free up patrol officers’ time by not having to haul inmates to Phoenix, he said. Currently, Mesa officers make about five trips a day, with an average time of 3 hours per trip.
If Mesa continues to use the sheriff’s Phoenix facilities, it estimates annual jail fees will rise from $5.5 million this year to $6.9 million next year.
“We’ve just got to come up with a better business plan than what we’re doing now,” Milstead said.
Mesa’s Public Safety Committee on Monday asked police to seek bids from private jail operators. Police said they will provide data from East Valley law enforcement agencies so bidders could determine the appropriate size and financial approach to the proposed jail.
Police in Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe are interested in joining Mesa in the project, Milstead said. Scottsdale is a possible partner.
Police have been eager to explore a private jail for several years.
Mesa was ready to get bids two years ago — but put the idea on hold after three inmates escaped from a private prison in Kingman. Two escapees were charged with killing a couple from Arizona, and an investigation found numerous security problems.
Milstead said the East Valley would only hold suspects in cases such as driving under the influence and shoplifting, but that police feared the public wouldn’t differentiate between the private prison and a private jail.
One option for police is to reopen a jail the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office operated near U.S. 60 and Mesa Drive, next to a sprawling court complex. MCSO stopped housing inmates in about 2003 but kept booking inmates there for several more years. Now, police must transport all inmates to Phoenix.
Mesa Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh said the city needs to explore whether East Valley cities could lease the old jail from Maricopa County for a nominal fee if they agreed to renovate the jail. Police said they understand the 180-bunk jail is dilapidated and would need substantial renovation to hold inmates again.
Milstead said it’s not clear yet if the jail is big enough to serve the East Valley’s police agencies or whether it can be expanded. But he said it’s a perfect location because it’s something that’s already existed without opposition.
“It’s never had problems,” he said. “It’s a secure facility. It resolves a lot of questions in people’s minds if we are able to do that.”
As police study the old jail in Mesa, Arpaio is considering reopening the jail to book inmates and to reduce travel times for East Valley police. Sheriff spokesman Sgt. Brandon Jones said Arpaio has been addressing police concerns over jail facilities.
“As of now we do not have an opening date, as the Sheriff has not officially decided to open the facility in question,” Jones said in an email.
Milstead said he’s heard the jail could reopen within 60 days. East Valley cities would still have to pay higher daily jail fees for inmates but at least wouldn’t have to make as many trips to Phoenix, he said.
“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “It doesn’t take care of the costs.”
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