If you want to win a political race in the little south-central Arizona town of Florence, look for work in the area or just hear the local gossip, chances are pretty high that you’ll find your way to Gibby’s Bar. All day long, behind its old saloon doors, along its dim interior, that’s where the town drinks. Surrounded by slightly absurd-looking saguaro cacti and harsh scrub-desert, along with a smattering of cotton fields and pecan farms, Florence is a raw town whose men and women drink hard and talk a talk from which more delicately constituted big-city dwellers might recoil in horror. The copper miners–the few who are left after decades of downsizing–come here after a day’s work in their union jobs in the surrounding red-rock mountains. And so do the prison guards.
These days, as is the case with so many other depressed Main Street communities, there’s no shortage of correctional officers. They come from the vast, and continually growing, state prison that’s been in Florence for as long as Arizona has been a state (the prison’s gigantic, ponderous, red-leather-covered ledgers from the early days now reside in the Pinal County historical museum, just down Highway 79, as do the nooses from executions and several of the leather belts used to strap down those condemned to die before they were gassed); they come from the county jail; they come from the two private prisons, one for low-end felons from Arizona, the other mainly housing out-of-state inmates from Alaska and Hawaii; and they come from the sprawling federal holding facilities in the dirt-poor neighboring town of Eloy, some run by the Feds, others under private contracts, which hold Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Marshals Service detainees. Many of the guards used to be miners. Others commute from job-starved communities across the south and central belts of Arizona.
“Our town supposedly has 17,500 people in it,” muses Don Penson, an iron-jawed 66-year-old retired major from the state prison, whose son-in-law is warden of the CSC Florence West private facility. “[But] only 3,500 are free-world people.” The rest, he explains, are prisoners.
In 1978, when Penson began working in corrections, Arizona had about 3,200 inmates. Today, that number is more than 31,000 and still growing, with much of the momentum for the ongoing expansion squarely attributable to the private prison lobby–which recently succeeded in getting the industry exempted from most state taxes. Private prison companies lure state-employed guards by offering short-term bonuses and pay raises. They do not dwell on the fact that, unlike the unionized state prison guards–whose union, AFSCME, has negotiated a generous, and guaranteed, pension package over the years–private guards receive a benefits package that in the long term is virtually worthless. For a few thousand dollars in ready cash, the newly hired private guards give up the possibility of a lifelong guaranteed retirement income. “Ten grand was the going rate last year,” David Mendoza, longtime legislative director for AFSCME, says over breakfast in downtown Phoenix. “Five thousand dollars up front; five thousand if they stick it out for a couple years. That buys a pickup truck. The young ones, not thinking about retirement, they’re easy prey.”
Over the past couple of months, Gibby’s Bar has been full of talk about how Terry Stewart, onetime head of Arizona’s Department of Corrections, and more recently founder and head of the private security and prison consulting firm Advanced Correctional Management, was dispatched to Iraq, along with his old DOC deputy, Chuck Ryan, to advise on “prison reconstruction.” At first, it seemed like easy money: In its $87 billion war package, Congress set aside $10 million to hire 100 prison consultants for six months, working out to an average of $100,000 per consultant, or somewhere in the region of $16,000 and change per month–no wonder Gibby’s was rife with stories of locals decamping from their Florence jobs to take on prison duty in Iraq. But the Abu Ghraib torture scandal is beginning to cast an unwelcome light on the private prison industry, from whose ranks key members of the Justice Department’s Iraqi “criminal justice reconstruction team” were drawn. After all, Abu Ghraib was controlled in the early days by one Lane McCotter; to spend time in Iraq, McCotter, who returned to the United States in September, took a leave of absence from his job as director of business development for corrections at Management and Training Corporation, a Centerville, Utah-based private prison company that hired him after he resigned as head of Utah’s department of corrections following a scandal surrounding inmate deaths. After he returned, MTC began considering a bid, in conjunction with another US private prison company, to manage one of the new “Supermax” prisons being developed in Iraq (this was dropped after the Abu Ghraib scandal).