A History of the Arizona State Prison-Safford

Frank Eyman, Florence Warden from 1955 to 1972
Original Tent City circa 1982
by Mel Taylor
(These articles originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Directions)

Mel Taylor was a physical plant supervisor II at ASPC Safford. He was with the Department for more than 23 years. Mel was a member of the Graham County Historical Society's Board of Directors and because of his extensive knowledge of ASPC-Safford was asked to write a paper on the facility and present it at the organization's symposium. He has also written other historical papers on the American pioneer origins of his family. As a continuing series, we will be featuring articles detailing the history of ADC's prisons written by employees.

The Arizona Department of Corrections' first Director, Allen Cook, in 1968, had a vision of using conservation camps as prisons. He imagined building these small prison camps throughout Arizona in order to enable inmates to work for governmental entities such as the Forest Service. The work would consist of firefighting, trail building, camp site clearing, or other work needed on public lands.

For decades the Arizona State Prison at Florence site had operated as a somewhat self-contained facility where inmates grew and harvested their own food. The new concept of Conservation Centers received a mixed review. During President Johnson's administration, his social services program to combat poverty included building numerous Job Corps Centers throughout the United States. One such center was located in Kingman.

After the Job Corps program was ended by the federal government, the facilities and equipment were given to the states. ADC contacted the authorities in Kingman, (Mohave County) to present the idea of using a Job Corps Center as a new prison. It was rejected. The Department went from county to county unsuccessfully looking for a new prison site until Graham County accepted, and the wheels of government began to turn,

Site selection in Graham County was easy, since during the 1930s a WPA camp had been located 10 miles east of Safford in the San Jose area. This 160-acre site spanned the Gibson Wash and was land locked from the old Duncan Highway. The work began in 1970, when seven employees and 12 inmates were selected to move the mobile structures from Kingman to Safford. The inmates became known as the Dirty Dozen and the new site became known as the Hill. The new prison was named the Safford Conservation Center (SCC) with Jerry Sylvia as the first superintendent. Inmates were first assigned to construct and maintain the camp, and in season, to man fire fighting crews. Each fire crew consisted of twelve inmates, one officer , a bus and equipment. On a moment's notice the crews were sent to different parts of the state to fight fires.

By September 1971, the population had grown to about 40 inmates and Earl Dowdle had taken the helm, as superintendent.

A community work program was begun, and each day the officers would transport inmates into the surrounding community and release them to civilian supervisors. Any tax supported entity could use the inmate laborers at a reduced wage. The fire crews continued to function in season, and soon the inmate population reached a total of 160, with 120 of them working in the community. To make work available for the inmates, the superintendent formed a salvage crew who worked at properties removing structures for the salvaged material. In 1972,this salvage crew was sent to Mt. Lemmon near Tucson. The inmates dismantled a steel building belonging to the Air Force. It was brought to SCC where it was erected as the first permanent structure at the prison camp, and served as a vehicle repair shop. This program existed well into the 1990s

During the summer months, the SCC maintained a camp on Mount Graham where a 20-man crew worked for the Forest Service cleaning up the trails and campsites. The camp disbanded after the buildings collapsed under a heavy snow load during the 1970s The salvage crew cleaned up the mess. In 1976, the state funded the construction of a new 48-bed dormitory to replace the unit that had burned five years earlier. This was the first structure that was designed by an architect and built with inmate labor at the Safford site. It was known as Dorm4. This was a turning point for the Safford Conservation Center, as it evolved from a temporary camp of mobile units to a permanent prison site.

In 1977, a report known as the Carter Report, recommended that the population at SCC be increased to 288 beds. In 1978 and1979, two more 64-bed dorms were constructed using inmate labor and an outside contractor, ensuring that the prison remain at the site. The1980s began with an increase in construction, including the addition of a new dining and kitchen Facility. At the same time, the state closed the Alpine Conservation Center, and because it had been built on Forest Service land, the buildings had to be removed. For the next two years the salvage crews worked on the juvenile facility removing all traces of its existence. On the other end, construction crews assembled structures such as the new gym, education building, visiting center and maintenance building. In 1982, the prison bed shortage became acute and a Tent Unit was erected to house some of the overflow population. The tents helped, but were destroyed in a violent storm. You might say they were "Gone with the Wind." To replace the tents, three Quonset huts were assembled and considered temporary housing units 12 years later they are still in use.

During the remainder of the decade, the Safford facility experienced growth and change in many ways. The name of the facility was changed from the Safford Conservation Center to the Arizona State Prison-Safford. Structural changes and improvements included the construction of a third dorm, the installation of an eight-foot fence around the entire prison, the addition of a new Quonset dorm, and the construction of two more 48-bed dorms. This was called the "Quick Build" construction project, done for the first time by an outside contractor, and ending the housing of inmates in mobile type structures. The population now stood at 481.

The decade of the nineties was a time of immense change and more growth. Longtime Warden Dowdle retired and was replaced by a new warden, Bill Gotcher. Tonto Unit, a new250-bed Level 3 Unit was built, the existing Level 2 facility was renamed Graham, and the entire site was renamed Arizona State Prison Complex-Safford.

In 1994 and 1995, more beds were added to the complex through remodeling of the Quonset dorms, double-bunking, and tent housing in the Graham Unit. A changing face of the prison population led to a disturbance in the summer of1995 in which most of the tent beds, as well as some of the support buildings were destroyed by a fire set by inmates. However, their actions proved meaningless. The burned tents were immediately replaced with ten more tents at the Tonto Unit and ten tents at the Graham unit. For the first time the Complex housed over 1,000 inmates.

In 1996, four of the dorms in the Graham Unit were remodeled to add 71 new beds. Warden Gotcher retired and was replaced by Warden Melvin Thomas. The Complex now houses 1,097 inmates and employs 270 people.

To this day, the tradition of providing inmate work crews to neighboring agencies continues. What was a small conservation center, is now the ASPC Safford, putting inmates to work each day on government projects, and saving taxpayers millions annually.

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