FLORENCE, Ariz. -- Welcome to Anchorage in the desert, the undesired home away from home of 786 convicted criminals from Alaska and a handful of women who love them.
"The scorpions are the worst part," said Wendy Stembridge, who has moved from her home in Anchorage to an insect-ridden $395-per-month apartment down the highway from the private prison where her fiance is doing a three-year sentence for burglary.
She is a part of what must be Arizona's oddest "kaffeeklatsch": a loose-knit circle of women who have moved from the icebox of Alaska to the frying pan of Florence to be close to their loved ones doing time in the Central Arizona Detention Center. Her improbable relocation in Arizona is one small human consequence of the growth of the for-profit prison industry, which houses an estimated 10 percent of the nation's inmates.
Since 1994, approximately half of the inmate population of Alaska has been housed on the north edge of Florence in a facility run by Corrections Corp. of America. Being transferred to Arizona, or "going south" as it is known in the Alaska Department of Corrections, is rarely a trip an inmate desires because of the hot weather and the distance from family. Most try to appeal the decision, Alaska Department of Corrections spokesperson Bruce Richards said.
The women don't look forward to the experience either. They face loneliness, grim job prospects and summertime heat for the privilege of being able to sit across a table in the visiting room and hold hands with their men for three hours a day, every day.
"My intention was to get an apartment and a job, but there are no jobs here," said Susan Korpela, a schoolteacher from Kodiak who spent the summer in Florence to be near her fiance, who is imprisoned on drug charges.
The prison's hallways are festooned with murals depicting mountain peaks, moose and glaciers to remind the inmates of home. The prison also observes an annual potlatch celebration each October, featuring traditional Native Alaskan games and a meal of caribou and whale blubber.
Korpela's fiance, Patrick Whiting, says he knows how lucky he is to have a regular visitor, something that the vast majority of displaced Alaskans are denied.
"I felt like a million bucks every night," he said. "It was like a drug."
Korpela has gone back to Kodiak to teach school this fall but plans to be back in Arizona for a short vacation in October.
For now, Whiting says, "I miss the hell out of her." He has been spending most of his time writing her letters and avoiding the exercise yard, where the hot sun tends to burn his pale skin.
Convicted burglar John Benefield, who shows off tattoos up his forearms, wears a plain metal engagement ring, the only jewelry permitted. He and Stembridge are allowed two brief kisses per visit: once when she shows up and another when she leaves. The two plan to settle in Arizona when he is released in three years.
The situation has strengthened their relationship, he says.
"I know she doesn't want me for anything I have or anything I can give," he said.
Stembridge has had a tough time in Florence. The scorpions in her apartment scare her to death, and the heat exhausts her. She has always wanted to live near the ocean, but the most Florence has to offer in that regard is some transplanted palm trees. She has held down brief jobs as a taxicab driver and a convenience store clerk but is looking for work and living off her unemployment stipend from Alaska.
"All my friends told me I was crazy to come down here," she said. "But this is not something I just jumped into."
It was almost inevitable that she would meet Korpela, as the two are virtually the only regular visitors at the Central Arizona Detention Center. Two other Alaska women, who also relocated to Arizona for love, round out their informal circle of northern exiles.
The Corrections Corp. of America also houses 563 prisoners from Hawaii in a separate unit. But Warden Frank Luna said he is unaware of any families or girlfriends who have permanently relocated from Hawaii. The town's two real estate companies also said they had neither rented an apartment nor sold a home to anybody moving from Hawaii.
The contract with the Corrections Corp. costs the state of Alaska $15 million a year but helps alleviate a shortage of bed space, Richards said.
"We don't have any place else to put these people," he said.
Mary Hodges, a former resident of Fairbanks, said she knew things would be difficult when she moved to a mobile home in Florence last December to have regular contact with her 21-year-old son.
"I want to visit with him and give him a sense of being connected with his family and the outside world," she said. "I really try to listen to him. We have had to develop a whole new parent-child relationship overnight."
Hodges has found steady work as an office manager and has made friends in Florence. She doesn't have a car but gets rides to the prison and occasionally walks.
"You do what is important to you," she said.
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