Mesa City Council votes to privatize some jail services

Posted at 8:35 PM, May 22, 2017

Mesa will be the first city in the Valley to privatize some of its corrections services.

At a meeting Monday night, the council voted 4-2 in favor of contracting with private firm CoreCivic, formerly known at Corrections Corporation of America, to handle its jailing needs for misdemeanor offenses.

The vote ends the city's relationship with Maricopa County, which to this point had handled the booking and other jail operations for those arrested by the Mesa Police Department.

The contract with CoreCivic approved at Monday's meeting is for three years at $5,000,000 per year. Mesa estimated it paid Maricopa County about $4,000,000 each year for similar services.

City staff in favor of the proposal highlighted the benefit the private facility would provide for officers on the street, as the commute to the CoreCivic facility in Florence is shorter than driving to the county complex in downtown Phoenix.

During a study session, police said the reasons to privatize including saving city taxpayers about $2 million in revenue compared to housing inmates in the county facilities in downtown Phoenix. It would also put more officers back out on patrol, as those transporting prisoners would have a significantly shorter commute than having to drive to the Fourth Avenue Jail.

Mesa inmates will be housed separately from the rest of the prison population at the Florence facility, separated by sight and sound, according to police.

Protesters from several community groups, including the East Valley chapter of the NAACP, the Black Phoenix Institute, and American Friends Service Committee of Arizona lined the streets outside city hall protesting the potential move ahead of the council's meeting.

Critics question the reputation of CoreCivic. The private prison company has faced a lot of nationwide criticism over the treatment of inmates, understaffing and the number of inmate deaths at the facility in Eloy.

"There have been serious problems at every other CCA facility in the country. The City of Mesa taxpayers will also be on the hook for any legal problems that arise from potential lawsuits. It's not if, it's when they get sued by a Mesa inmate's family. CoreCivic has been sued something like 800 times in the past," said Caroline Isaacs, who is against  the privatization of corrections offices.

Roy Tatem, Jr., the president of the East Valley NAACP, warned Mesa council members, buyer beware.

"It's almost like buying a used car. When people think they are getting a great deal at great savings. The next thing you know you're having to shell out money," said Tatem Jr.

During a study session police said they would be monitoring inmates at the facility every week to start with, then every month.

A spokesman from CoreCivic was present at the study session. Mesa councilman Jeremy Whittaker grilled him about pending lawsuits and the number of deaths in their facilities.

The CoreCivic spokesman was unable to answer the councilman's questions.

ABC 15 reached out to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office for a comment. Here is MCSO’s statement regarding Mesa’s pending decision on choosing a private prison contractor over county detention facilities:

We have worked and will continue to work with Mesa on their expenses related to booking and holding misdemeanors. We charge $306.84 to Mesa for booking one of their misdemeanor arrests into the Maricopa County Jail. 

• MCSO is still evaluating the impact of the decision from the City of Mesa. 
• The biggest impact is expected to come from a decrease in revenue for booking fees if Mesa no longer uses Maricopa County jails.  The booking facility itself is maintained for our other law enforcement partners so there may be an increase for those services. 

• While MCSO understands Mesa is acting in good faith, it is important to differentiate what MCSO offers and what a private provider offers.  The mission of MCSO and Maricopa County is to reduce crime and reduce recidivism rates by incorporating in its jail facilities evidence-based practices including inmate education, health needs, substance abuse issues, homelessness and employability.  A for-profit provider has a vested interest in keeping as many people incarcerated for as long as possible

Here are the reasons for increases in expense:
• The rate for Corrections Officer Retirement Plan (CORP) increased from 21.1% to 23.9%
• Building and Improvement depreciation costs increased 1.8 million
• Jail major maintenance costs increased 2.0 million
• Healthcare staffing increased 1.7 million
• Pharmacy costs increased 2.4 million
• Emergency medical transportation cost increased 1.4 million
• Reduction in the number of bookings

In 2016 94,990 inmates were booked into MCSO Custody.  Mesa projects 3,314 misdemeanor bookings, which would be booked at CoreCivic if they approve the plan. This equates to about 3.5% of the total annual bookings.  Note that those arrested in Mesa and charged with felonies would continue to be booked in the Maricopa County Jail.