BUCKEYE -- With prison costs at more than $1 billion per year, Arizona is making some big changes in how it houses criminals.
On Thursday morning, Arizona began transferring illegal immigrants who have been convicted of nonviolent crimes from the Arizona State Prison Complex in Buckeye to federal custody to serve out the last three months of their sentences.
Fifty-one prisoners were transferred Thursday morning. After being taken off the Arizona Department of Corrections but, each inmate was processed, searched and then restrained with zip ties before being loaded on to an ICE bus.
According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, more than 1,200 prisoners will be moved over the next two fiscal years.
The savings to Arizona is expected to be about $5.7 million.
The cost of feeding and housing the 51 prisoners transferred today totals about $3,000 per day.
Charles Ryan, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, said transferring these prisoners to ICE will open up some bed space in Arizona's prison system.
"We are returning to federal custody those inmates that otherwise should, in fact, be in their control," Ryan explained. "These inmates are going to be transferred to ICE custody within 90 days of their end-of-sentence dates. We're we're transferring these people prior to the end of sentence, but they're going from our custody to ICE custody. They are not going to the street."
The 51 inmates transferred today are the first of about 400 who will be moved this fiscal year. Next year, that number could be as high as 800.
"This will, we believe, help reduce the operating cost of our prison system," Ryan said. "These people belong in the custody of the federal system."
About 15 percent of Arizona's prison population is in this country illegally.
"The largest contributor are inmates from South America and Mexico," Ryan said. "We have more than 6,300 criminal aliens that need to be deported and returned their countries of origin after they've finished their sentences."
Ryan said the inmates have been warned that they are not to come back, and they will face prosecution and longer incarceration if they do.
"That is the message from the governor and our Legislature," Ryan said.
In addition to the transfer of criminal aliens, some nonviolent offenders who are U.S. citizens could be eligible for temporary release to the community based on approved service programs. Ryan said that happens routinely.