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Mesa votes to privatize its jail for low-level offenders, first in Arizona to do so

(AP Photo)

PHOENIX — The city of Mesa has joined a small number of local governments across the United States that have contracted with companies to privatize their jail operations.

Officials in the Arizona city approved a contract Monday that calls for private prisons operator CoreCivic to jail people arrested on misdemeanor charges at a site 55 miles away at the company’s Florence Correctional Center.

City officials said the move will save the city $2 million next year and improve efficiency in transfers and bookings. Currently, misdemeanor inmates are taken to county jails by Mesa police.

The company already has contracts to jail county inmates in Citrus County in Florida, Marion County in Indiana and Hamilton County in Tennessee. It also houses county inmates for Tallahatchie County in Mississippi and Wyandotte County in Kansas at a prison in each of the states.

CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, is the largest private prison operator in the United States. It runs prisons, jails, detention centers and halfway houses in 20 states.

Michael Kodesch, who follows the private prison industry as a senior associate for the financial service firm Canaccord Genuity Inc., said he doesn’t see such local contracts as an emerging major segment of the industry.

“It’s definitely not a core strategy for the private operators,” Kodesch said.

He said such agreements appeal to local governments that face steep increases in incarceration costs or have aging jail facilities. Kodesch said private prison companies are more focused on responding to overcrowding in prisons and operating halfway houses.

CoreCivic spokesman Steve Owen declined to say whether the company will make such local jail agreements a bigger segment of its business in the future.

He said the company got the Mesa contract by responding to a request for service. “We had a solution that made sense,” Owen said.

People arrested on felony charges in Mesa will continue to be housed in county jails, where the daily housing rate increased from $73 in 2008 to $101 in 2017.

Critics of the private prison industry opposed the Mesa contract.

They said private prisons don’t have a strong record on treating inmates properly and that the drive for profits could lead to more arrests. They also point out that 15 people have died at an immigration detention center operated by CoreCivic in nearby Eloy since 2003.

The Mesa misdemeanor inmates will be jailed at a facility that already houses inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service.

Will Gaona, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which opposed the Mesa contract, said jail costs for other police agencies could go up as a result of the move, because there will be fewer agencies to spread the fixed costs of operating county jails.

“I’d imagine that other municipalities will look at the money they are spending and look to reduce that,” Gaona said.

Owen said CoreCivic operates safe and secure facilities and doesn’t lobby for crime enforcement policies.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the county’s jails, said a variety of factors — such as jail maintenance costs, increased health care staffing and a reduction in the number of bookings — has contributed to the higher jail costs.

The Mesa Police Department said in a statement Tuesday that there are no extra costs for the private prison operator to transport inmates to and from the Florence facility.

The police department said the costs of incarcerating inmates charged with felonies are the responsibility of the county.

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