Unfortunately, the employment picture in Douglas is expected to improve in the near future.

That’s unfortunate because the new jobs will be at a prison facility that is currently closed. The Department of Corrections announced last week that it will reopen the Papago Unit to handle an increase in the number of female inmates across Arizona. The prison was closed in 2017 and the state put it up for sale with an asking price of $560,000, which never attracted any purchase offers.

Now the state is exceeding its capacity at the Perryville prison and opening Douglas, with room for another 250 female inmates, offers the “best solution.” Failure to address prison overcrowding can lead to court cases and millions of dollars in fines and settlements.

State officials are rightly concerned that families will be impacted. When inmates are moved far from home, it’s often impossible for families to visit and keep in touch. Studies show that breaking the family connection leads to an increase in recidivism, which exacerbates the problem of prison overcrowding.

There is also a serious shortage of staff. The head of the DOC, Director David Shinn, reported last week that 20 percent of the positions in his budget are vacant and the existing staff is working overtime to cover the openings. Shinn said 13 percent of his corrections officers are working more than 70 hours a week.

Considering that in 2015 Arizona’s prison population was 42,131 and the average annual cost per inmate was $25,397, even hardcore “law-and-order” politicians need to rethink our penal system and consider alternatives to incarceration.

Criminal justice reform needs to be on the State Legislature’s agenda when it reconvenes in January, with lawmakers prepared to revise Arizona’s punishments for low-level and non-violent offenders. Currently, Arizona’s imprisonment rate – the ratio of inmates to our state population – is the fifth highest in the country.

That “tough-on-crime” approach hasn’t made us safer. While the volume of crimes has dropped during the past 20 years, violent crime has fallen twice as fast in 32 other states, and especially in states that have reduced the imprisonment rate.

We hope re-opening the facility in Douglas is a short-term solution to the overcrowding problem that now confronts the state. It’s past time our elected legislators get a handle on the costs of incarceration and put programs in place that rehabilitate inmates and set them up for success once they serve their sentence.

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