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.”