Arizona’s Department of Corrections has been facing mounting scrutiny lately. Last week, a new legal complaint showed that the agency is keeping people incarcerated past their release dates. Then, two scathing performance audits found that the department was failing to provide rehabilitation programs to thousands.
This week, the state announced that it would be funneling $4.2 million in Covid relief dollars to the corrections agency. But that money won’t go to fix any of the problems that have recently been exposed. It will instead be spent on renovating the offices where the DOC’s executives and administrators work.
A divided legislative panel signed off on the expenditures on Tuesday following a heated discussion. It drew resounding opposition from some Democratic legislators, who felt that the money was being used improperly.
“I was anxious to see that money go for [Covid] mitigation,” Rep. Charlene Fernandez, a critic of the move, told Phoenix New Times. “It’s just so aggravating and so frustrating.”
The project, which will cost $9.3 million in total, will move the Department of Corrections’ administrative offices to a newly renovated building on Jefferson Street, formerly home to Arizona’s Medicaid agency. It will outfit the building with new furniture and other “enhancements,” and demolish ADC’s old offices.
Because the spending is allocated to a project within the corrections agency, state officials argue that it complies with guidelines outlined for use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars; corrections facilities fall under public safety.
“You can presume that any expenditure on public safety is allowable,” Geoff Paulsen, a budget analyst for ADC, told legislators on Tuesday. “And the governor has chosen to backfill this with ARPA money.”
Advocates see this new round of corrections spending as yet another example of the poor priorities of Arizona’s troubled prison system. The agency has for years been mired in legal battles over its healthcare, and, just last month, received a failing grade in one national review of prison systems’ response to the pandemic: It didn’t adopt any early release policies or regularly test its staff, and saw thousands of Covid cases.
“People [in Arizona’s prisons] have not gotten the tools they need to social distance, to even wash their hands,” said Becca Fealk, policy program coordinator with American Friends Service Committee Arizona, which advocates against mass incarceration. “And instead of using this money to address these needs, it is being used to build new offices for Director [David] Shinn and administrators.”
Fealk also noted that the Department of Corrections had seen its budget increase to $1.3 billion this year, despite a reduction in the number of people incarcerated in the system and the planned closure of one of its state-run facilities. It now accounts for more than a tenth of the state’s entire budget.
“They should be seeing a reduction in funding. And yet, they got more money than they ever have. So again, this goes back to the question of, what is happening with this money?” Fealk said.
It’s not clear what the $4.2 million that has now been freed up in the corrections budget will go toward. Spokespeople from ADC did not reply to New Times’ inquiries. A spokesperson with Arizona’s Department of Administration pointed New Times to the materials presented to the committee and did not respond to additional inquiries.
CJ Karamargin, Ducey’s spokesperson, argued that the state is already implementing measures to improve prison conditions — chiefly, increasing prison workers’ salaries in the latest budget, though he told New Times he was unsure if any other federal relief dollars had gone to helping with Covid in prisons. He also noted that he expected the renovation project to yield “long-term savings over time” for the agency.
Ducey is already facing criticism over his use of federal Covid relief dollars. Just this week, U.S. Treasury officials wrote a sharp letter to the governor, asking him to stop using Covid funds on voucher programs to incentivize school districts to drop their mask mandates. Ducey has yet to respond.
“He’s using these ARPA dollars almost as a personal slush fund,” said state senator Rebecca Rios, who also opposes the renovation project. “Technically, it may not be illegal. But it flies in the face of an honest use of these dollars.”
Although Republican legislators present voted in favor of the proposal at Tuesday’s panel, committee chair senator David Gowan said he was sympathetic to some of the Democrats’ concerns — and suggested that, if legislators took issue with the governor’s spending, they try to shift that responsibility to the legislature.
Arizona, after all, is one of just a few other states in which the executive branch holds most of the authority over how federal funds are allocated — most other states have joint or legislative authority over the money, according to one nationwide analysis. Ducey, as a result, has relatively little oversight as he continues to dole out the funds.
“If we want to fix that, we are more than willing to do that,” Gowan said.
But Rios and Fernandez both told New Times that they likely wouldn’t support that move. “Well, that’s worse from my perspective, given the makeup of the Republican party in the legislature,” Rios said. “We’d be using these ARPA dollars for Lord knows what.”
“I think we’re between a rock in a hard place no matter where it goes,” Fernandez said.