MCSO building animal safe haven facility using only private funds

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone is updating the county’s care facility for abused and neglected animals and creating more educational opportunities for inmates at the same time, all without a dime of taxpayer money.

“I can’t build this myself,” Penzone said. “All I can do is create the opportunity, but the funding is going to have to come from the private sector.”

PetSmart Charities, the nonprofit animal welfare organization of the Phoenix-based pet store chain, announced its commitment of $2 million to support the design and construction of the new facility in February.

“PetSmart Charities is dedicated to supporting programs that celebrate the human-animal bond and the positive effects pets have on the lives of people, and the MASH Unit is a program that truly demonstrates the power of that human-animal connection,” said Deborah Turcott, acting president of PetSmart Charities, in a statement.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) Animal Safe Haven (MASH) Unit was founded in 2000 to provide support for the agency’s Animal Crimes Investigation Unit. Facility staff house and care for animals that were victims of abuse or neglect by owners who are now in custody.

“I looked at it on a broader scale, and I just thought to myself, ‘If we’re going to be investing in care of animals that have been abused and neglected’ — because they are evidence of the court, we can’t adopt them until there’s adjudication in the court process — ‘how can we do more, not only for the animal population but maybe for the inmate population?’ Penzone said.

MCSO plans to build an entirely new MASH Unit facility on the county’s Durango Campus southwest of downtown Phoenix, and Penzone said he does not believe the facility should be funded by tax revenue.

“Although it’s a big lift, and it’s going to be really difficult for me, I committed to be the person to take the lead to raise what I’m projecting to be about a $10 million facility,” Penzone said, noting that the facility’s price tag was determined by architects and other development experts. “And then once we build the facility, we have access to other funds that are not taxpayer dollars that come from what we call our Canteen Fund.”

When inmates in county jails spend money on food and other items while incarcerated, a percentage of that revenue must go back to programs for the inmates, Penzone said. Part of that money will be used to expand educational opportunities for inmates through the MASH Unit.

“This program can have a transformative effect on the rehabilitation of inmates while helping abused animals rebuild their trust in people — giving them a better opportunity to be adopted into a loving home,” Turcott said. “Rebuilding a new facility for the MASH Unit will provide many opportunities to continue the success of the program, such as providing animal housing and classroom space, as well as expanded rehabilitation space for both inmates and pets.”

Turcott said the MASH program aligns closely with PetSmart Charities’ core values of helping pets in need and finding them a lifelong, loving home.

“I’d love to see this be something that really kind of defines that we’re going to be strong on crime, we’re going to hold criminals accountable, but at the same time we’re going to have empathy and understanding that, while in custody, we need to find a way to help inmates help themselves so that they leave better than they came into our jails,” Penzone said.

The MASH Unit has rescued thousands of animals for adoption and trained hundreds of inmates since it first opened, according to MCSO.

MCSO currently has between 75 and 100 dogs, more than 100 cats and some horses and other large or exotic animals in its care, Penzone said. The existing MASH Unit facility is simply not equipped to care for those animals appropriately, he said.

“That’s number one: We have to do it right,” he said. “We can’t have them in an old, dilapidated jail that is not designed for animal care. Secondly, I think it changes the culture within the jail system… for those who have come into custody because of a crime but while in custody are behaving responsibly and respectfully so that they should be entitled to some exercise or activity that is rewarding. And in doing so, maybe we can develop them as people and develop their character so that the quality of their lives improves, and that positively impacts their children or their families upon release.”

Penzone recalled one inmate, a nurse who lost her license due to a criminal conviction. She ended up working for an animal grooming facility after release using the skills she gained through the MASH program.

“I don’t expect that everybody going through the MASH facility is going to suddenly become a vet or a groomer or work in an animal facility, but I do think that it will instill values and work ethic,” Penzone said. “The more confidence an individual has of what they’re capable of, the more likely it is that they’ll pursue and retain employment, which has a direct benefit and impact on the economy because now we get people off of social services and make them self-sufficient.”

Penzone said he spoke with the governor about finding a way to collaborate with the state’s Second Chance programs to reduce recidivism.

But Penzone’s favorite thing about being sheriff is being able to speak with the community’s youth about the important role law enforcement professionals play in keeping the community safe and promoting wellness, he said.

“Every day that I get a chance to go to a grade school or a high school and talk with young adults and try to inspire them into potentially considering a career in law enforcement or restoring a relationship where they trust us, and they trust what we stand for and the integrity of the office, that’s really why I signed on to be sheriff,” Penzone said.

The MASH Unit is not the only public-private partnership on the sheriff’s docket: Penzone created the Fugitive Apprehension Tactical Enforcement (FATE) team in 2017 to track down fugitives full-time, working with private funders to offer rewards for information that helps MCSO follow through on more than 31,000 unserved felony warrants in Maricopa County.

Penzone said he urges any members of the community who are financially able to contribute to the new MASH Unit “so that this vision becomes a reality.”

Graham Bosch

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