Women's prison
Photo Courtesy Athena Salman

The Arizona Department of Corrections is proposing to reopen the Douglas Prison Papago Unit due to a female inmate population increase. However, advocates say the state doesn’t need another prison for low-level drug offenses.

State lawmakers met Wednesday to discuss an additional funding request from Arizona’s top corrections officials to reopen a women’s prison in Douglas, which will address an unexpected rise in female incarceration.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections’ proposal, the female population increased by 94 inmates, or 2.2%, since the end of fiscal year 2019, which was June 30. As a result, ADC now faces a bed deficit.

In a letter to the committee, ADC Director David Shinn emphasized the need for more beds, stating that “the female inmate population increase averaged 11 per month” in the past year, and the department has now “forecasted that growth in the female population will continue.”

The request comes three months after the Arizona Department of Corrections concluded additional beds were not needed in its September 2019 Bed Capacity Report.

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Director Shinn responds to Rep. Fernandez’s questioning about clean water at proposed facility. Photo courtesy of ACLU Arizona.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona quickly came out against the move to increase prison capacity for women, and accused the court system of punishing women convicted of low-level drug offenses too harshly, thus leading to higher rates of incarceration. According to the ADC population reports, the number of women admitted for drug-related offenses has risen by 3% since 2017.

“Our crisis is not a bed crisis,” said ACLU Smart Justice Leader Danielle Jensen. “It is an issue of over-incarcerating and under-funding reentry and rehabilitation programs to help our women get back to their families.”

In addition to the rise in female incarceration, an ADC report on inmate ethnic distribution reveals that Black and Latino Arizonans are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites. While Blacks make up 5.1% of Arizona’s general population, they represent 14.5% of Arizona’s prison population. In its Blueprint for Smart Justice analysis of Arizona in 2018, the ACLU found that Arizona has the highest Latino imprisonment rate in the country.

“Instead of opening a new prison for women, they really need to look at what’s already in place,” said Kara Williams, an organizer for the ACLU. She also said several state programs offer earned release credits and provide inmates with an opportunity to obtain sentence reductions. “They’re not giving women the resources they need.”

Arizona’s overall prison population has risen steadily for nearly two decades and has the fourth-highest per-capita incarceration rate in the country. Despite claims of slowed growth, the ADC’s five-year plan shows a 60% increase in the inmate population from 2001 to 2016, particularly among women. 

Photo Courtesy ACLU Arizona
Chart provided by ACLU Smart Justice

If approved, the ADC would forego plans to sell the Papago Unit at Douglas Prison and open 340 additional beds for women. Since the unit was closed in 2017, the prison has been plagued with health issues, and in June, the facility was without running water for four days. When asked during the committee hearing by State House Minority Leader Rep. Charlene Fernandez (D-Yuma) if concerns surrounding water contamination would be resolved before opening the Papago Unit, Shinn said he “could not answer with certainty.”

Leaders from the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that focuses on justice reform, believe reopening Papago will put the women sent there at serious risk.

“Director Shinn wants to send hundreds of low-risk women to a shuttered facility that may not be safe or healthy for them,” said Arizona AFSC representative Caroline Isaacs. “The solution here is obvious: Stop incarcerating so many people, especially women.”