Conservatives argue that the increase means more scumbags are off the street, while liberals say that mandatory-sentencing laws and other tough-on-crime reforms have resulted in overly harsh sentencing.
Whatever your perspective, the trend has come with a big price tag. Since 1990, the portion of the state budget dedicated to prisons has increased from 3 percent to 10 percent of the state's general fund--and it's still not enough.
The state has 27,178 permanent prison beds, but it has to house more than 31,000 prisoners, according to legislative staffers. With a deficit of almost 4,000 beds, inmates are double-bunking and housed in tents and other makeshift facilities.
Projections suggest the pressures will only increase. State officials estimate that the inmate population will grow by roughly 160 inmates a month for the next five years.
This fall, lawmakers spent more than seven weeks in special session, partly to deal with the space crunch. Gov. Janet Napolitano wanted to expand the state prison system, while Republican legislative leaders wanted to build private prisons. In the end, both sides compromised, with Napolitano getting an 1,000-bed expansion of state-run prisons, while GOP legislators got 1,000 private beds.
Filmmaker Michael Mulcahy, an assistant professor in the UA Media Arts Department, explores an often-ignored aspect of the growth in the state prison system in his one-hour documentary Correction, which follows four recruits through seven weeks of training at the state's Correctional Officer Training Academy, and then through their first eight months in the state prison system.
Mulcahy, 43, initially was interested in looking at how Pima and Cochise counties were competing for a state prison, but as he dug deeper into the subject, he became more interested in the dynamics of working within the prison system.
"There aren't really that many documentaries out there about this," says Mulcahy, who spent about 3 1/2 years making the film. "The reason I made this documentary is to show a side of prison and state operations and state control that people don't ordinarily see. I'm very interested in giving my audience some insight into how the state trains correctional officers and what happens inside these state prisons."
The film shows the training regimen that students endure, including rigorous physical fitness exercises, firearms training, self-defense classes and even exposure to tear gas. It also goes inside the classroom to eavesdrop on lectures that teach trainees to be constantly on guard against the psychological games that inmates play.
It's stressful and, for some, depressing work. As Sgt. Ann Murchek tells her students during the training class, "Yours is a thankless job. It is a good thing, but nobody is going to thank you for it."
Turnover within the system is high, and staff shortages are constant. Of the four trainees that Mulcahy followed, only two were still with the state after 18 months. One quit to join the Army, while another transferred to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Mulcahy pins part of the high turnover on the pressures that come with dealing with both inmates and superior officers.
"As an officer, you are trained to deal with inmates in certain ways," Mulcahy says. "The documentary shows the philosophy behind that. As you move up in the command structure, and you become a sergeant and a lieutenant, your dominant supervisory model is working with inmates. So when you turn it around and apply it to your co-workers, it makes for an atmosphere that is really distrustful and really negative."
The filming took Mulcahy into the state's Special Maximum Units 1 and 2, the highest security areas in the prison system.
"I was incredibly depressed and discouraged and scared by what I saw inside the Special Maximum Units," says Mulcahy. "It's a place where everybody seems trapped, and the reality is that there's nothing there that can be seen as positive."
Reaction from Department of Corrections officers has been mixed, says Mulcahy. While they haven't quibbled with the details in the documentary, some complain that he has made the work out to be more depressing than they find it to be.
Having followed the most recent legislative debate over the future of the state's prisons, Mulcahy says major changes are needed for a system that's near the breaking point.
"We're pretty close to a crisis," says Mulcahy. "This is a wave that has been growing since 1978, and it's cresting now, and I think what the state's special session did--they've only begun talking about short-term solutions and there have to be longer-term solutions."