Arizona Plans to Export Mexican Inmates

Ross Perot warned about the "giant sucking sound" that would result from all the US jobs going to Mexico with the implementation of North American Free Trade Agreement.

But will anyone complain if what is heading south of the border is not jobs, but Mexican inmates who now occupy north-of-the-border prison space at US taxpayers' expense?

Putting its own twist on an increasingly globalized world, Arizona's state government, headed by Republican Gov. Fife Symington, is pushing a proposal to build an American prison across the border in Mexico to house Mexican nationals doing time for crimes committed in Arizona.

Taking a cue from US companies that have located assembly plants in Mexico to take advantage of much lower labor costs, Arizona officials say the simple idea would mean a significant savings of taxpayers dollars. At the same time they say a prison, just like a factory, would constitute an economic development boost for the Mexican community that landed it.

"The [US-Mexico] border is becoming a different thing than it used to be, we have to see it more in terms of cross-border relationships that are of mutual benefit," says Jay Heiler, Governor Symington's chief of staff. "We see this project as fitting within that broader approach."

Arizona officials say the savings would be significant. The state's prison population hovers around 23,150, with about 10 percent of the inmates being Mexican nationals serving sentences for mostly drug-related crimes. The state currently spends more than $16,600 a year to house each inmate, but officials figure they could shave 30 to 50 percent off operational costs with a Mexico-based prison.

"Then there's the savings on the capital cost of building the prison," says Arizona Department of Corrections Director Terry Stewart. With the average prison costing $34,000 a bed to build in Arizona, another 50 percent savings in this area is possible, he says. With Arizona's prison overcrowding roughly equal to the number of Mexican prisoners the state has, those savings look particularly attractive.

The idea is not without critics. Some lawyers and prisoners' rights advocates say shipping prisoners across the border to Mexico would intolerably affect their legal rights.

"What do you do when there are violations of human rights, but the prison is in Mexico?" wonders Jsus Romo, a Tucson defense attorney. "How could we have jurisdiction when it's another country?"

Mr. Heiler says he's heard the arguments against the proposal from "the criminals' rights crowd," but adds, "Frankly speaking, how much the inmates can litigate is not of great concern to us. We are committed to reasonable standards," he adds, "but our focus is on saving the taxpayers some money."

But Arizona officials recognize the project is going nowhere without Mexico's approval - and so far response to the idea has been mixed at best. Mexican consular officials in Arizona have flatly rejected the prison proposal, while Heiler says response from officials across the border in Sonora State has been more open.

"This concept of an American prison on Mexican territory is completely removed from any reality, our country would never accept such a possibility," says Carlos Angel Torres Garca, the Mexican consul in Tucson.

"We already have a binational agreement on prisoner exchange, but a mutually respectful exchange agreement is a very different matter."

The current binational exchange program is voluntary, and hampered by the poor reputation of Mexican prisons, Mr. Stewart says. "We have very few Mexican inmates who are willing to volunteer to leave our system to go to theirs," he says.

Stewart says that both prisoners and critics of the state's proposal must understand that Arizona would be building a US prison in Mexico, meeting US standards in construction and operation.

The hiring and training of the prison staff would be a key factor, inmate representatives say. "I think if Mexican inmates were assured of the standards and rights they would live with, a majority would in fact choose to return to Mexico," says Mr. Romo. "If nothing else, families would be able to visit them more easily."

Despite the continuing obstacles, Heiler says Arizona intends to aggressively promote the prison project, with Stewart looking at early 1998 as a necessary approval deadline for budgetary purposes. And officials expect the idea to attract growing attention, especially from other US border states with high Mexican inmate populations.

"In California, where it costs more to incarcerate someone for a year than to send him to Stanford," says Heiler, "they'd have good reason to be interested in this idea."

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