No quick fix seen to prison crowding - East Valley Tribune: News

No quick fix seen to prison crowding

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Posted: Saturday, May 3, 2003 12:37 am | Updated: 1:43 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

A prison that was never built. Bed space arranged too late. A new prison unit that stayed empty without staff.

Poor planning has fueled an overcrowding crisis in Arizona's prison system, said Chris Ryan, acting director of the state Department of Corrections. State leaders are scrambling to find a solution.

The department is coping by building tents and having inmates double-bunk in some units, but the system could run out of room this summer, Ryan said.

"We're trying everything we can," said George Weisz, Gov. Janet Napolitano's special assistant for corrections. "The problem is, we want to make sure the vacancy sign for criminals that prey on society is always there, but right now, the vacancy sign is hanging by a shoe string."

The governor is putting together a revised executive budget for corrections to ensure the system doesn't run out of room, he said.

The state had a solution three years ago, when a $196 million prison was planned in Tucson that would have added 4,400 beds to the system. Those plans were canceled when statistics showed a downturn in the prison population, said Daryl Fischer, the department's research director. Corrections officials told lawmakers at the time that canceling the prison would be a mistake, he said.

Prisons were seeing fewer inmates because of a criminal case backlog in Maricopa County, Fischer said. Once that backlog was corrected, prison authorities knew there would be a rapid turnaround in defendants entering the prison system, and normal growth would continue.

"The downturn was purely temporary, but we couldn't convince the Legislature it was temporary and they should overlook it," Fischer said.

Today, the prison system, which has 26,578 beds, is over capacity by 4,200 inmates. Had the Tucson complex been built, overcrowding would not be as severe, Ryan said.

The prison population continues to grow — a result of state changes to the criminal code, tougher prosecutorial policies, and recent cuts to probation services, which have caused judges to send more defendants to prison, criminal justice officials said. Last month, the department saw the largest monthly gain in prisoners in history with 481 additional inmates.

"Policymakers need to decide how the criminal justice system is going to manage this kind of growth and how we are going to use the resources," Ryan said.

Since plans for the Tucson complex were canceled, lawmakers have focused on privatization to handle growth. Last November, the department contracted with Correctional Services Corp. to place up to 645 male inmates in the Newton County Correctional Center in Texas.

Corrections officials are examining a plan to have a private operator house 3,200 female inmates. And last Monday, the department sent a notice of intent to do business with Management and Training Corp., which plans to house 1,400 inmates at a prison in Kingman by June 2004.

But the arrangements with private companies will not come quick enough to solve current capacity problems, which present safety risks to inmates and correctional officers, Ryan said.

The department is building tents at its prison complexes in Goodyear, Tucson, Douglas and Yuma. But using tents to house prisoners whose average stay is 34 months is not ideal, Ryan said. Unlike cells, which can be monitored continuously, tents limit oversight because correctional officers must enter a tent to monitor inmates.

"Tents should only provide short-term housing, but in reality, they turn into housing for months and years," Ryan said.

Another risk is understaffing, he said. While the department is authorized for 6,023 correctional officers, the prison system has only 4,775. The shortage has kept the department from opening a 350-bed unit at the Lewis complex in Buckeye. The unit, which has been available since February 2000, is slowly being staffed since Napolitano reinstated a $5,160 hiring bonus last month for correctional officers who agree to work at the Lewis, Florence or Eyman complexes, said Michael Arra, a department spokesman.

Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa and chairman of the appropriations committee, said solutions are available, but they won't be quick or easy. "Short-term, you're right, we have some problems. You just can't do things overnight."

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