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Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
9:43 PM Thu, Sept. 20th

PRISON STUDY: Florence: 110-year-old prison put town on map

Courtesy/CCA<br/>A housing unit is pictured in the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, about 25 miles from Florence.

Courtesy/CCA<br/>A housing unit is pictured in the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, about 25 miles from Florence.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Four of seven Town of Prescott Valley council members, including the mayor, have publicly opposed getting into the prison business. Meanwhile, attendance at all prison-related forums over the past several months is evidence that the citizens are speaking out, both in support of and opposition to a proposed prison.Corrections Corporation of America has said that Prescott Valley is off its list, a local real estate development firm has said it will continue to pursue a prison, and citizens on both sides wonder if anyone's listening.Bill Fain and his son, Brad, of the Fain Signature Group announced during the Town Council meeting Feb. 11 that they want to proceed with plans to annex and rezone land off Fain Road that CCA had considered for the prison site. The Fains said they would favor taking the issue to the ballot to let the voters - and not seven council members - decide whether to bring a private prison to the community.However, the election would take place only if the council were to approve the Fains' request. Voters seeking to overturn a council "yes" decision would need to launch a referendum drive, similar to what Wal-Mart opponents sought unsuccessfully in a March 2007 election to overturn rezoning of property off Lakeshore Drive and Glassford Hill Road.The Daily Courier profiled three regional towns with prisons - Blythe in California, and Florence and Kingman in Arizona - to survey life on the inside from the outside. The Courier and its sister newspapers in Blythe and Kingman undertook the project before the issue appeared to die in Prescott Valley.Courier reporter Ken Hedler joined local business people on a tour of a federal detention center that CCA operates in Florence. The tour took place Jan. 28, the same day three members of the council announced they would oppose proceeding with prison plans.A sign greeting motorists on Highway 79 welcomes them to the "historic town" of Florence, which Col. Levi Ruggles, an Indian agent, staked and platted in 1866. Florence became the Pinal County seat in 1875, and the agricultural center of the county by the 1920s.However, prisons have defined Florence for a century. That identity began in 1909 after the territorial prison moved from Yuma, according to the Florence Chamber of Commerce.More residents in Florence are behind bars than living on the outside. Jess Knudson, public information officer for the town, recently said the inmate population numbers 17,000, compared with 10,000 other residents.Twenty residents of the tri-city area got a taste of Florence in January when the Prescott Valley foundation arranged a field trip to the Central Arizona Detention Center, which houses inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service. Participants included real estate agents, an insurance agent, two partners with the Fain Signature Group - which sought to sell land to CCA - business owners and retirees.The detention center differs from what CCA had proposed for Prescott Valley but contains the same level of security, Brad Wiggins, senior director for site acquisition, told participants beforehand. He explained weather in Eloy prompted CCA to change the destination from the Saguaro Correctional Center to the detention center in Florence.Participants rode in one of three vehicles, which passed by U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the detention center, Pinal County Justice Complex, Arizona State Prison Florence West and Central Arizona Correctional Facility,An 11 a.m. arrival at CCA's Florence Correctional Center featured a drab building with a razor-wire perimeter fence with loops that spring and capture would-be escapees.The adjoining detention center is similar in appearance and contains 538,000 square feet.After arriving at the gate, visitors underwent an airport-like security check. Guests removed belts and shoes, emptied pockets, and placed their personal effects in bins that rolled through a scanning machine.All employees go through the security screening as well. Cameras are not allowed.CCA consultant John Gluch, who formerly worked 24 years with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, guided the guests. According to Gluch, the detention center opened in 1994 with 500 beds and has expanded over the years in 250-bed increments.The center is CCA's largest prison with an average count of 3,329 inmates, warden Chuck Keeton said. The center has 500 employees.Keeton said the center serves federal courthouses in Phoenix and Tucson, and provided transportation for about 40,000 inmates in 2009 for the Marshals Service.The Marshals Service is responsible for housing and transporting all prisoners from the time they enter federal custody until juries convict or acquit them for federal crimes, according to spokesman Steve Blando. Inmates convicted of federal crimes -including fraud, conspiracy, counterfeiting and weapons charges - receive sentences to federal prisons.The center houses inmates with all custody levels, Keeton said, adding most of the inmates are minimum security. They stay an average of 86 days.Responding to a question from Allstate insurance agent John Ravnik, Keeton attributed the low turnover rate to the center being a "good place to work." Some employees have worked at the center for 15 years, Keeton said.Florence Police Chief Robert Ingulli said police investigate crimes within the detention center. He added that only three escapes have taken place from prisons in Florence over the past nine years, including one at the detention center."I want to tell you the good news," Ingulli said. "The first thing they want to do is get out of town" after escaping.The prison hires most of its employees from within a 20-mile radius of Florence, Gluch said. Prospective employees must be 21 or older, a high school graduate and have a clean record, assistant warden Sam Rogers said.Keeton said 10 employees work in maintenance, "not to mention our fleet of vehicles that we maintain for the Marshal's (Service)."Gluch said, "Remember. This is a jail operation." He added almost every federal inmate who is charged with a federal crime in Arizona spends time at the center.Working for a prison carries no downside, according to Keeton. "I'm a dad. I'm a husband. I go to church. My kids go to school," he said.Keeton and other CCA staff joined their guests on a 45-minute tour of the center after opening electronic crash gates. The center has 14 gates.They walked by inmates who wore orange jumpsuits and pink plastic shoes, and past a laundry room and murals.Two hundred or more inmates are segregated in separate cells to reduce security risks to them, said Lt. Kurt Johnson, who oversees the segregated unit. Most inmates share a cell.A pod houses in separate cells 72 women who are in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, Johnson said. Three hundred other women are detained in the center.More than 15 male inmates lined up at 12:55 p.m. for lunch. They bring trays back to their cell or to a dayroom, said Harold Newton, chief of security. He supervises 300 uniformed employees and at least 100 staffers who hold clerical, maintenance and administrative jobs.The dayroom contains two television screens and tables. To reduce noise, inmates wore earplugs while watching television.Adjoining the dayroom is a gang cell with 12 beds. The cell houses inmates who are a lower security risk, Gluch said.Inmates work in the center as well. They wash floors, launder clothes, prepare meals and perform maintenance work.Inmates also may check out books in English and Spanish in the library.Inmates may play volleyball, basketball and other sports outside in an exercise yard. However, CCA bars them from using weights, which can be used as weapons."We don't want them to be too strong," Newton said.The center also contains a medical unit that employs 15 registered nurses, 14 licensed practical nurses, and two physicians and nurse practitioners apiece. The unit also uses a nurses registry, said Carmela Campanon, health systems administrator. Each inmate undergoes a physical exam within 14 days after arriving, Campanon said. She said they have the same health problems as people in the outside world."We have diabetes, hypertension," she said. "We screen them for syphilis." Some inmates have AIDS, Campanon added.The prison displays inmate-created murals of mountain settings, castles and spaceships near the kitchen. Twenty-five to 35 inmates work in the kitchen per shift and prepare most of the meals, said Adrian Hale, food services director. The kitchen crew prepares 10,000 meals per day. Hale said the inmates "definitely" have a strong enough work ethic to work in restaurants.A number of correctional officers arrived for work at 1:30 p.m., and swiped their employee badges through a machine. The tour concluded at 1:50 p.m. after the guests returned to the visitor room and CCA staff fielded more questions.Several visitors walked away from the detention center with positive impressions."You know, I think it is well-run," said Scott Powell, who retired to Prescott Valley in 2006 after working 23 years as a correctional officer with the California Department of Corrections.Powell, who worked at San Quentin and California State Prison-Los Angeles in Lancaster, said the short stay of the inmates in Florence reduces any security risk. "We did not see hard-core inmates, just (by) the way they were acting," he said.However, he added, "One thing I noticed is a lack of safety equipment for the COs, the correctional officers. Not all of them had radios."Powell said he saw only one correctional officer carrying pepper spray, adding the officers lacked batons and vests, which provide protection against stabbings."I have some misgivings about the size of the institution," Powell continued. "I would like to see a smaller institution, maybe 1,000 to 1,500 (inmates)."However, Powell, 54, said he would work at the center if he needed a job.The center and its management impressed Randy Phillips, an expert witness on long-term care cases and retired registered nurse who has lived in Prescott Valley 14.5 years.Phillips also cited the "cleanliness of the building, the responsiveness of staff and the overall atmosphere of the facility. The staff was open and honest."However, he said, "I am still unclear whether it would be a good fit for the community."