Arizona: A Prison Economy

By Anna Daggett


Florence loomed in my mind as the hellhole of the inhospitable landscape of Arizona: a town that I had heard contained three prisons and no supermarket. Florence is a visual representation of the recent trajectory of Arizona’s economy, which is investing money and creating jobs through a federal and corporate prison network mostly detaining undocumented immigrants.

The presentation that we were given as a group when we went to the I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Detention Center in Florence reflected this proliferation of prison jobs. Marcos Conteras, the man who gave us the tour, told us that there were 122 I.C.E. employees at this detention center and that they contracted 457 general staff (13 in food service, 424 in security custody, 12 in maintenance, and 3 religious staff), and 29 medical staff. That is a total of 608 staff for a detention center that has 392 beds for detainees. If Arizona schools had as much staff or monetary investment as Arizona prisons, we could create an Arizonan economy that wasn’t reliant on the incarceration and dehumanization of non-criminals.

As of last week, 31% of the current population in the Florence I.C.E. Detention Center are criminals, meaning they have been previously convicted of a crime, while 69% of the general population are non-criminals. Non-criminals, meaning they have no criminal record, but have been apprehended by the local police, Border Patrol, or I.C.E. as people living in this country without papers. It is not a crime to be in violation of immigration laws; it is a strictly civil violation. Immigrants have to go through a civil legal process to see if they have the right to stay in the United States or not. Instead of letting people stay at home and work while they are going through this legal process, detention centers are making huge profits off of detaining immigrants.

The Florence Project, a non-profit legal aid organization that provides assistance to detainees, reports that the average cost of detaining an immigrant is $99 per person a day. Alternatives to detention, including reporting and electronic monitoring, yield a 93% court appearance rate and only cost $12 a day. Only 30% of the people in this detention center have committed crimes deemed “dangerous to society”, but the detention center’s primary function is to keep the streets safe through detention. This rhetoric of security against the criminal enhances the idea of immigrants as “other”, as not worthy of basic human rights or of access to the benefits of living in America.

At the I.C.E. facility, detainees are paid a dollar a day to work a shift in the kitchen, the Laundromat, or elsewhere within the facility. This work was phrased as beneficial to the detainees because it gives them additional job skills. Do we really think that someone is going to list wiping tables at a detention center while being incarcerated on an application for employment? This is one of the newer rungs in the horrible history of forced and enslaved labor in the United States. The detention center receives virtually free labor from non-criminals who could be working minimum wage jobs while going through their civil, not criminal, proceedings.

In keeping with their motto “care, custody, and control,” I.C.E. controls detainees by color-coding them by criminal status. A recent article on NPR explained that “officials at at least five state institutions have been using a color-coding system to keep track of their inmates by race: black inmates get blue signs placed above their cell doors, while white inmates get white signs, Latino inmates are designated by red, green or pink signs, and everyone else is yellow. Their logic works like this: if a group of Latino inmates fights with a white inmate, the prison would place all of the Latinos on lockdown.” Racism is ruling the functioning of our prison systems in the United States.

It became clear to us that the bureaucratic distinctions between a detention center, jail, and a prison are blurred in terms of more than solely treatment and intent. We were told that a detention center has a purely administrative, not punitive function, that a jail serves to hold people pending prosecution for a criminal charge, and that prisons house people once they are convicted of a crime. Florence alone houses the I.C.E. Detention Center, the CCA (Corporate Corrections of America) Detention Center, and the Pinal County Jail. Regardless of the numerous amenities that the I.C.E. detention center is providing, the detainees at one of the supposed best facilities in the country are still being treated as animals, as the bottom tier in a human caste system.

The words that were used continually on our tour portrayed the detainees as animals to be taken care of and controlled. At one point, our tour guide announced that we were moving on to view the dining hall facilities and he warned that “they may be feeding right now.” His inappropriate joke insinuated that he was a warden of animals whose only needs are nourishment by glucose and protein, sleep, and shelter. Humans have emotional, mental, and physical needs. Prisons intentionally treat humans like animals because their goal is not rehabilitation of people; their goal is detainment of people who exist outside of and challenge the normative sphere of US society.


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