‘I felt like a zero. Now I feel like a hero.”
That’s what an Arizona inmate said to me when I traveled to Navajo County in the summer of 2016. My team and I were up north observing the damage caused by the Cedar Fire and meeting the brave firefighters who risked their lives to protect our state’s landscapes.
The man I met was part of a group of inmates enlisted in a fire-crew program operated by the Arizona Department of Corrections. The agency’s program selects current inmates to fight fires throughout Arizona while serving their time in prison.
To me, the program is a way of letting these individuals pay back their communities and, by giving them a chance to be productive members of society, increasing the likelihood that they won’t return to prison after being released. Often, it means a job is waiting when they walk out the doors.
One squad boss who spoke to KOLD News 13 in April said that the program has “been a life-changing experience for me. I know a lot of the guys out here feel the same way.”
I told that story during my State of the State address in January, and I’ve thought about it many times since. Exchanges like this — and the positive outcomes we’ve seen from Arizona’s forward-thinking corrections efforts — are one of the reasons we’re investing more in anti-recidivism programs this year.
The next time a Sawmill Fire rages through Southern Arizona, threatening our neighbors’ homes, property, and livelihood, I want it to be easier for individuals released from prison to stand up and protect their communities.
That’s why the new state budget I signed a few weeks ago is investing $1.5 million to create a post-release fire crew. (The existing program enlists current inmates; the new program enlists released inmates.) We’re giving Arizonans a real second chance to turn their lives around in a meaningful and productive way.
Our anti-recidivism strategy is a win-win for everyone involved, including hardworking Arizona taxpayers. After all, it’s expensive to house inmates — and, according to the data, 39 percent of inmates released from prison will eventually return to prison. That’s a big bill to pay in the long term.
Taxpayers already give enough of their hard-earned money to government. They shouldn’t be expected burden the ever-growing costs of recidivism because of outdated policies.
This new fire crew accomplishes both: It protects taxpayers from long-term prison costs, and it improves public safety. And it’s not the only investment we’re making to make that happen.
Our fiscal year 2018 budget also finances the expansion of “Employment Centers” within Arizona prisons. These centers help inmates do things like build résumés and find jobs before they’re released, giving them tools to lift themselves up and build better lives rather than revert to their old ways.
This is a common-sense investment to reduce the state’s prison population and save taxpayers money.
So far, we have opened three of these successful Employment Centers, including in the Manzanita Unit in Tucson. All three centers are now open and operational, and we’ve already seen 35 individuals receive job offers after participating. (There are nearly 200 inmates currently going through the program.)
Our goal is to give people the tools they need to improve their lives, help them see value in themselves (maybe for the first time in their lives), and offer them a concrete way of paying back their communities.
Whether that means analyzing the effects of outdated occupational licensing processes on individuals with criminal records or enabling released inmates to work as peer coaches to help those struggling with addiction, our state is taking the lead when it comes to getting people back on their feet.
That’s how to give Arizonans a real second chance — and how to save Arizona taxpayers money while doing it.
This guest opinion originally appeared on Tucson.com.