Arizona is Maxed Out! Prison Siting and Prison Conditions

Within carceral geography, the debate over prison siting has often centred around the perceived merits and demerits of location of prisons in terms of impact on crime rates, real estate values and community relations, as well as the contentious argument that prisons can act as stimuli for economic development. In Arizona, US, this debate is taking a new and critical turn, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (ACLU AZ) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) have joined forces to demand that Arizona’s Governor Brewer cancel plans to build 500 new maximum-security prison beds in the state at a cost of $50 million.

As the ACLU point out on their website, the argument here revolves around both the diversion of funds away from essential services and towards prison building, and around the appalling record of Arizona’s existing maximum security prisons, in terms of the lack of medical and mental health care for prisoners, and the impact that confinement in isolation has on former prisoners after release.

They argue that “Arizona’s budget priorities are backwards. This year, the Arizona State Legislature passed, and Governor Brewer approved, a $50 million plan to build 500 new maximum-security prison beds. But Arizona’s prison population is not growing. In fact, it decreased last year and the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) projects zero growth in the adult prison population for the next two years.  Like other states across the country, Arizona’s budget reflects severe cuts to essential services and agencies across the board. How does Governor Brewer plan to pay for 500 new maximum-security prison beds? The current state budget takes $50 million from the mortgage crisis settlement fund that was intended to help communities devastated by foreclosures. Those millions of dollars then get moved to the state’s general fund, and suddenly, the state has $50 million for 500 new maximum-security prison beds.”

In a Community Forum of the “Arizona is Maxed Out!” Campaign ACLU Staff Attorney, James Duff Lyall will discuss and provide updates on the class-action lawsuit that has been filed against the Arizona Department of Corrections for lack of adequate medical and mental health care for prisoners, and AFSC Program Coordinator, Matthew Lowen will highlight the findings of the recently published report, “Lifetime Lockdown: How Isolation Impacts Prisoner Reentry”. The Community Forum takes place on Wednesday Sept 19th in Tucson, Arizona.

This movement in Arizona focuses attention on prison siting, but not in terms of the conventional arguments either of NIMBY-ism (e.g. Martin & Myers 2005) or of communities competing for prison location as a growth stimulus (e.g. Cherry & Kunce 2001, Glasmeier & Farrigan 2007). It recalls Anne Bonds’ argument in her 2009 paper that “representations of poverty and criminality are entangled with processes of economic restructuring and the localization of economic development and social welfare”.

In this case, Arizona’s apparent diversion of mortgage crisis settlement funds towards prison building seems to be a permutation of Bonds’ observation that “states in desperate fiscal predicaments are endeavoring to finance their ever-burgeoning prisons systems—fueled and reinforced by punitive policies—which further redirect limited resources away for social investments” (2009, 434) – although in Arizona’s case the predicted zero growth in the adult prison population begs the question why such prison building is necessary at all.

As a recent article in the Arizona Guardian points out, Governor Brewer plans to spend $124 million on new prison construction compared to about $9 million on new school construction. Assistant House Minority Leader Steve Farley observed that “Of course if you build fewer schools you’re going to have to build more prisons. We’d be a lot better off if we built more schools and gave those kids a great education so they don’t end up in prison in the first place.”