Ariz. to reopen part of women's prison as CO staffing shortage continues

Officials raised concerns about the reopening since the state already has more than 1,300 vacant CO positions

Howard Fischer
Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX — The Department of Corrections will reopen a shuttered prison in Douglas to deal with the fact that women are being locked up at a higher rate than before.

“We’re simply out of beds,” David Shinn, Department of Corrections director, told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which gave him the go-ahead Wednesday to reopen the Douglas site.

The Arizona Department of Corrections is reopening part of a Douglas prison, which once served as a motel, as the state runs out of cell beds for women.
The Arizona Department of Corrections is reopening part of a Douglas prison, which once served as a motel, as the state runs out of cell beds for women. (Photo.TNS)

Shinn said the unit at the state prison at Perryville, the only one that houses women, has 67 more inmates than operating capacity.

“Our only option is putting people on the floor,” he said. “That simply is inhumane.”

But Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said it’s not that simple. She said the DOC’s plan ignores the fact that the women who would be housed in the Douglas facility — it could hold up to 340 — would be separated from family.

The Perryville unit, near Phoenix, is 255 miles from Douglas.

“I’d rather sleep on the floor and see my kids rather than be isolated in Douglas,” Alston said.

Shinn agreed to try to populate the Douglas facility with women from Southern Arizona who would be closer to their families. “It is certainly something that is important to all of us,” he said.

Two years ago the Department of Corrections reported it was adding women at the rate of about five a month. For the most recent budget year the figure is 11.

The result is there are 4,422 women at Perryville. It is rated for 4,214 beds with another 141 temporary beds added.

That leaves the Papago Unit, originally a motel on the west side of Douglas, that the state purchased in 1987.

It had been used as a facility for convicted drunken drivers but closed in 2017. Legislative staffers said the state put the walled property up for sale in early 2018 for $560,000 but has failed to find any takers.

Now, with the boost in incarcerated women, Shinn will reopen it. He figures the minimum security facility has the capacity for 250 permanent beds and 90 temporary beds.

Shinn had no specific answer to why the female population is increasing. It’s something over which he has no control, he noted. “The people who could best address that are our county attorneys,” he said.

He conceded that reopening and staffing the Douglas facility may be difficult, as his agency already has more than 1,300 positions it cannot fill in the entire system.

In a separate report to the committee, Shinn said that 1 out of every 5 authorized DOC positions is unfilled. The biggest problem appears to be at prisons outside urban areas.

Leading the vacancy rate is the Eyeman Prison, one of the facilities at Florence, where there are 642 filled positions and 411 vacant ones. The separate Florence Prison is not much better, with just 505 of 760 positions staffed.

And the prisons at Buckeye and Winslow all have vacancy rates higher than 20 percent.

One exception appears to be the prison in Yuma, where only eight of 728 slots are vacant.

The way the agency is dealing with it is overtime. That concerned Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, who said 13 percent of corrections officers were working more than 70 hours a week.

“I’m wondering about someone’s ability to function at 90 hours a week, their alertness, their judgment,” Friese said.

“It’s a concern,” Shinn conceded, relating the story of one officer he came across who had worked a 16-hour shift the night before, driven 90 minutes home and another 90 minutes back.

“(He) was almost asleep on his feet,” the director said. “I sent him outside to take a break and get some fresh air.”

Shinn said his agency is “really, truly strapped” at the prisons with high vacancy rates.

“And were it not for the dedication of these young men and women being willing to do that, we would be in far worse shape,” he said.

Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said the staffing situation appears to be improving, as the vacancy ratios are down a bit from the same time three months earlier. Lawmakers approved a pay raise earlier this year as well as allowing the agency to hire corrections officers as young as 18.

But many more corrections officers are needed. One option, Shinn said, might be to hire people who want to work only on a part-time basis.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, suggested requiring those who are hired and trained at state expense to sign a commitment agreeing to stay for a certain number of years.

The report to lawmakers found starting salaries for the state below not just what is paid by Pima and Maricopa counties to their corrections officers, but also less than paid by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and private prisons operated by CoreCivic.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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