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Traveling in Arizona: Prisons

Surely the prison capital of the U.S. would be Florence, Arizona. (Not to be confused with supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where Ted Kazynski and Zacharias Massaoui are stored.) Maybe there’s a town with more, or better hidden prisons than here.
Florence is one of the oldest towns in Arizona, and proclaims its “historic downtown” at every turn. It has a population of 25,000+. Given that there are at least three large prisons there, it puzzles me that they should have an 8.1% unemployment rate. If prisons are the successful commercial enterprise that they claim to be, there should at least be a low unemployment rate in the town where the prisons are.
Mind you, this mysterious, evil-feeling place is in the middle of the Sonoran desert, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. We were cruising along Route 79, getting ready to turn right at Florence for the last leg of a trip from Phoenix to Tucson, when I saw this enormous complex in the distance.
cca prison in florence az
Out in the middle of the desert – what was that? We drove closer and saw it was a prison. Wow. That’s a lot of prisoners. Building after long white building. This complex is run by the Corrections Corporation of America. It looks all spanky white and clean on the outside, like an outpost on Mars which contains its whole life inside its bubble.
Then we passed another complex on the other side of the road.
immigration detention center IMG_0508
I had heard about the holding pens for illegals, and here was one, a sun baked jerry-rigged patch of misery. This is where the immigrants (and their children?) live, I guess. I say “I guess” because I didn’t interview anyone or do any research. I just see the sign and then the fence and then the buildings and make assumptions.
At this point, I’m getting depressed. Thousands of people were housed out in the desert, but I couldn’t see anyone, couldn’t hear any children playing, nothing moved. But we had yet to get to this third prison.
entrance to aria state prison
Yet another huge complex of prison buildings.
This complex was the only one where we saw human beings.
prisoner exercise yard
Maybe I’ve read too many articles recently about the incarceration rate in the U.S.
Maybe I read too many articles and books about the desperation of immigrants.
Maybe I’ve seen too much Orange is the New Black.
But the sight was suffocating, even just looking at it from the outside.
As we were driving, we found ourselves following an open backed truck with orange-suited prisoners seated on each side.
“There’s your money picture,” Terry said.
“No,” I disagreed. The point is the monotony, the punitive blankness, the size of these places. The pillow of blasé ignorance over every face hidden away in these prisons. Surely there could not be this many people so dangerous that we have to build a place like this. We’ve heard that incarceration is a business, and here it is right in front of us.
Build it and they will come.
We then had lunch in the Old Pueblo restaurant in downtown Florence where we got a decent chili relleno and some carne asado. As we approached the door, I was thinking that the customers would be prison guards or other prison employees who were either on their day off or on their lunch break. I was wrong. It was filled with snow birds.
inside old pueblo restaurant
If there is such a thing as vibrations which emanate from humans, even from a distance, then dark things were emanating from the prisons in Florence. I have had my own days of alienation and isolation. They came back to me there.
I believe that poverty,  illness, or bad luck is the reason why many of the inmates are in these places. Some, maybe a lot of, people have to be locked away and removed from our sight because they are unredeemably destructive, but not this many of them. To believe that so many people need to be removed in order for us to live good life is to believe that the human race is raked with evil intentions and ill will; to lose faith in ourselves.
It would be natural to believe that the governors of the town of Florence viewed the prisons as a great boon (notwithstanding the fact that as of December, 2014 they still had an unemployment rate of over 8%), but you will have to search a while before you even find a mention of the prisons on the town website. The draw there is all about the history of the town, its distinctive architecture, its country music festival, its model airplane field, and so on. If you dig around long enough, you’ll discover that the town’s four major employers are the school system, the county, the town itself, and the Corrections Corporation of America, yet CCA doesn’t get any props on the website.
Living in Florence would be worse than living surrounded by cemeteries, because there are beating hearts in those blank prisons. Even people who believe in incarceration as the solution to our ills must feel the grey pall. Surely we lack imagination if the only way we can figure out to live a civilized, secure life is to bury so many people alive out in the desert, and the only way we can figure out to find work is to employ another cohort of thousands keeping them there.
It was like looking from the outside at a war zone. I don’t know the details. I don’t know the true cost, or the people who made the decisions, or how much harm those prisoners did, or what the destroyed lives used to look like.  I do know that there must be a better way.