A showdown between counties and the state is looming as the Legislature threatens to balance its budget by dumping hundreds of prisoners onto the counties.
“For Gila County, the cost would be prohibitive and the space is just not there,” said Gila County Sheriff John Armer.
Gila County Jail Commander Jim Eskew said, “Where is the savings? The only way for the state to save DOC (Department of Corrections) money is to eliminate facilities. It is hypocritical of them to do this shift. It doesn’t even qualify as a temporary fix,” said Eskew.
In a shell game with Gila County, the state plans to shift 81 prisoners into the Gila jail system next year.
The county can’t absorb the $2 million cost, handle the types of criminals state prisoners represent, nor give up the required jail space, said Armer.
“This state prisoner shift is wrong. We don’t operate prisons in our county jails,” said Supervisor Shirley Dawson in a recent meeting.
Most county prisoners are awaiting trial or serving brief sentences, while state prisoners have often committed much more serious crimes and are serving terms that last for years.
Housing each county inmate costs $68.49 per day or $24,998.85 per year. Adding the cost of state prisoners will strain the county law enforcement budget, said Sheriff Armer.
The influx of often-violent, long-term state prisoners could force alarming changes in jail management.
State prisoners have gone through the court system, been found guilty and sit in prison while serving out their sentence. County inmates are generally awaiting trial and spend an average of 18.3 days behind bars before the courts decide their case. Often they pay a bond or are released on their own recognizance (OR), freeing up a bed for the next inmate, said Eskew.
“Gila jails work on a ‘revolving door’ basis. In the last 67 days, I’ve released 683 prisoners on OR, bonds, or their cases have been resolved.
“The 81 state prisoners would be like ‘stones’ in the county system. No early release, no alternative housing (such as a halfway house).
“I could not move them, they simply would take up bed space,” said Eskew.
The county jail in Globe has 152 beds, the jail in Payson has 27.
The construction of a woman’s dorm in Globe with 40 beds is almost complete. If the 81 state prisoners arrive, they would remove almost 40 percent of available space.
“This would destroy the county jail system,” said Eskew.
State prisoners and county inmates represent two different types of criminals, requiring distinct security measures. State prisons are generally built in remote areas, with heavy security.
County jails are generally in the middle of town, with much less stringent security.
Prisoners in state prison are often repeat offenders, while 82 percent of the inmates in the Globe jail are awaiting trial.
The layout of the county jail makes it impossible to separate those two types of prisoners, said Armer.
“The county has lots of child support warrants. These violators are placed in jail to simply bring to their attention the seriousness of the matter. Compare that to state prisoners, many of whom have had a number of bookings prior to their sentencing,” said Armer.
About 94 percent of state prison inmates have either a history of felony violence or repeat felony convictions — often for drug offenses, according to a 2009 report by the Arizona Prosecuting Advisory Council entitled, “Prisoners in Arizona: A Profile of the Inmate Population” by Daryl R. Fischer, Ph.D.
“The state is forcing counties to operate in ways they’re not designed to operate. This is putting communities in danger. This is a public safety issue everyone should be concerned about,” said Eskew.