American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment

By Sasha Abramsky | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 6
OPEN FOR BUSINESS

Surrounded by harsh scrub-ridden desert and enormous saguaro cacti, along with a smattering of cotton fields and pecan farms, Florence, Arizona, is a raw town whose men and women drink hard, at old saloons such as Gibby's Bar, and talk a talk that more delicately constituted city dwellers might shy away from in horror.

These days, as in so many other depressed Main Street communities, there's no shortage of correctional officers. They come from the vast and constantly growing state prison that's been in Florence for as long as Arizona has been a state; they come from the county jail; they come from the two private prisons (one for low-end felons from Arizona, the other mainly for out-ofstate 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 government, others under private contracts) that hold Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service detainees. Many of the guards commute from job-starved communities across southern and central Arizona. Some of them used to be copper miners, with union jobs working the local red-rock mountains. In the 1990s and 2000s, in this state that mines more nonfuel minerals than any other, many of these jobs were downsized as companies sought to maximize productivity. In the single year from 1991 to 1992, Arizona shed nearly a sixth of its mineral-mining jobs, reducing the workforce from 14,900 to 12,600.1 The incarceration industry is taking up the slack.

“Our town supposedly has 17,500 people in it,” mused Don Penson, an iron-jawed retired major from the state prison, whose son-in-law was warden of the privately run Correctional Services Corporation (CSC) Florence West facility, in 2004. “[But] only 3,500 are free-world people.” The rest, he explained, were prisoners. In 1978, when Penson began working in corrections, Arizona had about 3,200 inmates; by 2004 that number had risen to over 31,000 and was still growing.2 The original push for this growth was the tough-on

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