Arizona Can't Function Without Forced Labor, Is That Bad?

Arizona Can't Function Without Forced Labor, Is That Bad?
File:20000 Cheers.png - Wikimedia Commons

As much as we love to talk about how we have "abolished" slavery in these here United States, there is an exception to the 13th Amendment — involuntary servitude is still legal if it's being used as punishment for a crime. In Arizona, as in many states, prisoners are required to work 40 hours a week for at little as 10 cents an hour, unless their health does not allow it (which is a very big possibility considering a federal judge just found the state's prison healthcare system to be "plainly grossly inadequate" and "unconstitutional").

Giving testimony on Thursday before the state Legislature's Joint Legislative Budget Committee about "a Request For Proposal for a contract to run the Florence West prison," Arizona Department of Corrections Director David Shinn explained that many Arizona communities would "collapse" without prison labor.

Via Arizona Central:

“These are low-level worker inmates that work in the communities around the county itself, I would imagine?" Gowan asked.

“Yes. The department does more than just incarcerate folks,” Shinn replied. “There are services that this department provides to city, county, local jurisdictions, that simply can't be quantified at a rate that most jurisdictions could ever afford. If you were to remove these folks from that equation, things would collapse in many of your counties, for your constituents.”

In other words, he is arguing that if everyone in Arizona were to be a wonderful, law abiding citizen, counties would fall apart because they can't pay a fair wage for the labor that prisoners do, that the state literally needs people to commit crimes in order to function economically. Whether or not that is actually true is unclear. As the ACLU has noted, Arizona taxpayers spend $1.3 billion a year on prisons, which is more than they spend on higher education.

But it is part of the basis of Shinn's argument for why the states should have more prisons than they actually need.

Defending the choice to keep state and private prisons open despite dwindling populations, Shinn told the legislators “while it doesn't necessarily serve the department in the best interest to have these places open, we have to do it to support Arizona.”

“Without the ability to have these folks at far flung places like Apache, like Globe, like Fort Grant, even like Florence West, communities wouldn't have access to these resources or services, and literally would have to spend more to be able to provide that to their constituents,” Shinn said.

Though Arizona traditionally has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, that number is dwindling. When the state contracts out to private prisons, it has to guarantee at least a 90 percent occupancy rate or pay for a 90 percent occupancy regardless of how many prisoners are in there. At Florence West, they are paying a per diem rate for 675 prisoners despite the fact that there are only 457 prisoners currently housed there.

At issue is the fact that while Florence West is a private prison owned by the GEO Group, the state had bought the prison back with the intention of taking it over this year. Shinn says that the state is in no shape to take over the prison and wants the private prison to continue running it, citing the 1,891 current corrections officer vacancies in the state.

The gist here is that Shinn believes that it is necessary to keep Florence West so that the community surrounding the prison can benefit from the forced labor and that the state should continue paying the GEO Group for 200 beds they are not providing, because they won't be able to properly run it themselves.

After more questioning from [Democratic Rep. Kelli] Butler, Shinn confirmed there were currently more than 5,000 empty beds in the Arizona prison system state-wide.

“So we do have the option of switching these inmates out of this facility and into other facilities and save a lot of money for the taxpayer,” Butler said. “So I'm less concerned about whether or not this private prison company makes the profits that they want to make and more concerned about the taxpayer of Arizona.”

When Butler asked “Why aren’t we closing more prisons?” her line of questioning was halted by committee leadership for being outside the scope of discussion.

Was it though? Seems like that might be the exact discussion they should be having. Arizona has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country and still cannot fill its prisons.

According to the ACLU, "charging misdemeanors as felonies, throwing thousands of people behind bars instead of offering drug treatment or diversion services, and abusing prosecutorial power to secure guilty pleas are just some of the tactics used that have led to Arizona’s exceedingly high rate of incarceration."

These things are all connected. They have to pay the private prisons, they have to fill the private prisons, they have to provide slave labor and in order to do that, they have to send a lot of people to prison for a very long time. The first private prisons started in Texas in 1985 and prison populations have since skyrocketed. That's not a coincidence.

Chart showing skyrocketing rate of incarceration

How can anyone trust the system when even those whose job it is to defend it tell them to their faces that it is all about money?

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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