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Mesa Jail Privatization Comes At A Cost To Other Phoenix-Area Cities

If you’re arrested in Mesa, you’re taken to the police department. After you’re booked, a judge at the station may choose to hold you. In the past, at this point, you’d be take to the Maricopa County Jail.

But on July 1, Mesa began contracting with private prison operator Core Civic to house low level offenders at its facility in Florence.

Cmdr. Michael Beaton has overseen the privatization process for the Mesa Police Department.

"This is the first time anyone’s done this in the nation," Beaton said. "This has to work. Especially because there’s a lot of eyes on us.”

Last year, Mesa put a sales tax on the ballot to get more money for public safety. That measure failed, so the Mesa City Council asked departments to look for ways to save money. Mesa police finalized a bidding process this year, that began in 2012, by selecting the private prison company Core Civic to handle jail services for misdemeanor offenders.

“I think we would have been remiss if we didn’t at least try to save our taxpayers dollars,” Beaton said.

Now, more than a month into the contract, it appears Mesa is saving money on jail costs. For April, May and June, Mesa paid an average of more than $450,000 a month to MCSO to house misdemeanor offenders.

For July, Mesa paid Core Civic just under $120,000. That number doesn’t account for the cost of some inmates who are finishing their sentence in the county jail.

Mesa police and Mesa City Court said they have not changed their arrest or sentencing practices as a result of the jail privatization.

Booking Rates

Mesa went looking for other options due to rising costs of Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) booking and housing rates.

Those rates are set by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said spokesman Fields Moseley.

"The booking rates is simply the cost of what it takes to bring somebody into the jail," Moseley said.

A big part of that expense is for health care services provided at intake and throughout an inmate’s stay at MCSO. “We’re talking about nurses, doctors, mental health professionals and then if they need further services while they’re in the jail or further medical needs we, by law and by court orders have to provide those,” Mosely said.        

Dr. Jeff Alvarez is the medical director for Correctional Health Services. He oversees all of the health care in the county jails.

Alvarez said one of the biggest challenges in short-term detention is diagnosing inmates that are at risk for substance withdrawal.

“They’ll look stable, but once they’ve gone through maybe 10, 12 hours of withdrawal then you’re going to start seeing some of the symptoms manifest themselves," Alavaez said. "So we need to know that upfront."

Core Civic transported at least two inmates to the hospital for alcohol and opiate withdrawal in July.

Alvarez said for-profit prison companies have less experience dealing with serious health care needs.

“Part of their contract will be to get more of a healthy population and if somebody has any sort of medical problems they kinda kick them out or they go to another facility,” Alvarez said.

He said it’s expensive but necessary to have licensed nurses and doctors on staff to protect inmates health and the county’s liability.

MCSO charges $325 to book an inmate into the county jail. Core Civic does not charge a booking rate. The company declined to be interviewed for this story, but said nurses and physicians are providing inmate medical care.

Housing Rates

Housing rates for the county are factored by dividing total expenses for the jails by the number of inmates. But the number of inmates going through MCSO jails each year has steadily been going down, from 107,000 in 2011 to 95,000 in 2016. By their nature, staffing levels at the jails have to remain the same, so daily housing rates go up.

Moseley said the county factored in Mesa’s departure from the system for the most recent rate increases.

“The Board of Supervisors budgeted $4.2 million to cover what we expect will be a shortfall from Mesa making the decision to work with a private company,” Mosely said.

MCSO housing rates increased 12 percent this year from $90 to $101 a day. Core Civic’s housing rate is just $67 day.

Caroline Isaacs with the American Friends Service Committee is an opponent of jail and prison privatization.

“You have to wonder then, if the job is public safety, what we’re really getting for that cheap product,” Isaacs said.

She believes public safety should be left in the hands of government. Isaacs is concerned that Mesa will be the first privatization domino to fall in the Valley as other communities look to save costs on public safety.

“What’s Gilbert going to do? What’s Chandler going to do?" Isaacs said. "If they see their charges go up will they turn to this kind of outsourcing?"

She said local governments should be working together to save money and resources, not undercutting one another.

"What can we do to maximize public safety and act collectively instead of this sort of every man for himself and to hell with everyone else?” Isaacs said.

Mesa police said they want to give the new process a year to evaluate the contract.

In the meantime the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is currently looking at booking and housing rates for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. With a whole city now removed from the county-wide system, the rates for everyone else will likely continue to rise.

Core Civic Invoices

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.