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8:01 PM Fri, Sept. 21st

PRISON PROPOSAL: CCA criticized by union, praised by Florence officials

Corrections Corporation of America and other operators of private prisons have drawn fire from public employees unions for allegedly paying lower wages and straining public services in communities.

However, CCA also earned kudos from a police detective and town government official in Florence, where the company operates two prisons.

CCA pays correctional officers only $10 to $12 an hour while correctional officers in Arizona state prisons earn $18 to $20 an hour, said Chuck Foy, executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association. The Phoenix-based union has about 3,500 members.

CCA officials could not be reached for comment.

Barrett Marson, a public information officer for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said he does not know the pay scales in private prisons. However, he said starting pay for correctional officers at state prisons is in the mid-$30,000 range.

Private prisons "also put a strain on law enforcement (and) local prosecutors because the private prison folks cannot investigate crimes," Foy said.

However, Florence has a "pretty low crime rate" despite being home to 10 prisons or jails, said Jess Knudson, public information officer for the town. He added Florence has more inmates at 17,000 than residents at 10,000.

"We like to acknowledge our police force," Knudson said. He added the Pinal County Sheriff's Office is based in Florence because it is the county seat.

Florence Police Detective Walt Hunter commented, "I can't remember the last time I responded to CCA." He has been on the job six years.

"We definitely have a good working relationship with CCA," Hunter said. "First of all, we work a lot in cooperative efforts. We assist them with investigations."

He continued, "These guys have always been very cooperative, very professional. There is nothing I can say bad about them."

Foy faults private prisons for allegedly hiring correctional officers with less training than their public-sector counterparts. He said the Department of Corrections requires 360 hours of training, compared with 120 hours for CCA.

CCA's website states all new full-time security employees receive a minimum of 120 hours of training during their first year of employment. Courses cover cultural diversity, defensive tactics, emergency procedures, firearms training, hostage situations, radio communications and other subject matters.

Private prisons also are exempt from public records laws, Foy said.

Marson said the exemption applies because they are privately owned.

He said he does not know how many private prisons operate in the state because they do not have to report to the Department of Corrections.