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Make Maricopa dangerous again: Mesa bets against crime reduction

A private prison contract is a lose-lose bet against Mesa residents

Photo illustration of a man handcuffed on June 18, 2014.

Photo illustration of a man handcuffed on June 18, 2014.

The City of Mesa is considering collaborating with CoreCivic, previously known as Corrections Corporation of America, to begin sending persons convicted of a misdemeanor to private prison facilities in Eloy and Florence. 

This would mark the first time an Arizona municipality has used private prisons in place of county jail facilities for misdemeanor offenders. Students at Polytechnic campus and residing in Mesa are directly endangered by worse incarceration conditions.

Mesa is angry with Maricopa County, after prices per booking rose by 60 percent at the County’s Fourth Avenue Jail. In return, they are further empowering a corporation that has cut corners and endangered prisoner lives, abdicating core tenets of moral use of state power.

Steve Kilar of the American Civil Liberties Union said that the private prisons, rather than embracing rehabilitation, have profit motives in creating an endless cycle of incarceration, release and re-arrest.

“They are perfectly happy to have people reentering the prison system, because the more bodies they have, the more money they are making, and that is completely counter to what a prison system should be,” Kilar said.

This particularly impacts those living within Mesa. Rather than improving police-community relations, this directly drives a wedge between the two, as police patrols now have the duty to protect and serve city investments rather than city residents.

Private prisons contractually charge some localities that do not fill their quotas, meaning that if Mesa experiences a reduction in crime, it may be a drawback for the city budget. CoreCivic and other private prison corporations keep profits up through the use of inoccupancy fines.

According to In the Public Interest, three Arizona contracts require 100 percent occupancy, without which there are inoccupancy fines.

A contractual occupancy quota — something which would be negotiated between now and a final decision — could mean increased patrols around Mesa, looking to improve arrest quotas to avoid sizable fines.

Already, the county is dealing with a declining inmate population, which is part of the problem surrounding the costs of incarceration for the county. In a written statement on March 22, 2017, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said that this was the principle reason for the increase in costs. 

“Hard costs of staffing and facilities is unchanged,” the statement said.

If there is a lack of crime around Maricopa County, it seems odd that a Maricopa County municipality would be the first to look toward having a capacity minimum in prisons. But the crime drop reported into 2014 appears to be holding across the county.

Arrest rates for violent crime in 2014 remained at 31,936, dropping to 29,859 in 2015, the last year for which Arizona Department of Public Safety data is available. Total arrests have fallen by 15 percent from 2013 to 2015.

If Mesa fails to take this into account, they could wind up with an occupancy requirement clause in the contract that would cost the city more money for having less crime. This extends beyond the social costs of a system that ties financial incentives to keeping higher numbers of residents incarcerated.

That means more unnecessary enforcement for highly watched neighborhoods like those around the university, but will also strain relations further between the City of Mesa and communities of color.

Maricopa County is reworking its incarceration system, particularly with the staff changes being reflected in this week’s announced closing of the infamous Tent City. While it remains to be seen how this closure will affect the cost of the system overall, it would be wise for the City of Mesa to wait and see, rather than getting into a high-risk contract with CoreCivic.

If the ethical quandaries of private prisons aren’t enough, then the price tag of a safer Mesa should be enough to end Mesa’s foray into a CoreCivic contract.

Correction: The name of the source Steve Kilar was incorrectly named as Kilner. The article has been updated to reflect the changes.

Reach the columnist at or follow @blsteele17 on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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