Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday he wants to change the culture at the Department of Corrections, a culture that resulted in the agency chief cut off from what was happening by “yes” men.
But the governor is refusing to criticize Charles Ryan, who announced his retirement just before the release of a highly critical report on the agency last week, a report that found Ryan being “surprisingly uninformed” about what was going on in his own department.
“I’m not piling on,” Ducey said when asked about the problems that were revealed not only in the report about security problems but also a history of lawsuits against the department over everything from inadequate health care for inmates to concerns about the safety of corrections officers. “This is someone who has served the public for 40 years.”
And Ducey sidestepped questions about whether Ryan kept him in the dark about the extent of the problems in the prison system.
That includes not just what was in the report last week by two former Arizona Supreme Court justices detailing not just problems with cells that did not lock and inmates wandering around units and starting fires and assaulting others. It also mentioned other, more long-standing problems with morale, understaffing and salary issues.
Instead, Ducey said he would not blame Ryan.
“If you look at the report, you’ll see that there are some things that had not gotten to the director,” the governor said. “And, of course, what the director doesn’t know, he can’t get to me.”
But the justices, in their report, suggested that Ryan’s apparent ignorance – and, by extension, Ducey’s lack of knowledge – may have been be self-created. They said that some people they interviewed told them how Ryan “cultivates a culture in which employees fear to tell him negative information.”
That now leaves the question of what happens next and who takes over the agency responsible for incarcerating more than 40,000 inmates when Ryan formally steps down next month. But the governor made it clear he does not want the current situation to continue.
“Changes are necessary,” Ducey said.
In their report last week, Rebecca White Berch and Ruth McGregor said it appears that Ryan was “misled” about the lack of functioning locks in cell doors at the Lewis Prison in Buckeye. Part of that, they said, may be because information on some incidents had been “filtered” to make a supervisor or unit “look good.”
But the two justices also said that people they interviewed said that Ryan surrounds himself with “yes men” and that “some dare not disagree with him and slant reports to meet his expectations for fear of discipline or termination.”
“With the upcoming transition, it gives the opportunity for a fresh start,” Ducey said when asked about ensuring there is not a repeat performance when the governor chooses a new director. “And that, in my experience, has always been a way to change the culture and most dramatically affect it.”
Ducey provided little in the way of hints of who or even what kind of person he wants to take over the agency.
“There’s a lot of people that want to be at the table and provide input,” he said.
“There’s a lot of people who have a lot to say about criminal justice, reduction in recidivism, incarceration in the state of Arizona and in the United States for that matter,” the governor continued. “So we do want to hear those voices and that feedback to be part of the input in the decision.”
Ducey acknowledged that he already has some people “in mind.”
“But, as I’ve said, we’re going to do a national search, we’re going to cast a wide net.”
In the past more than three decades the agency has been headed by directors from a wide variety of backgrounds. That includes people with experience in prison systems from other states as well as those with more academic backgrounds.
And for a time the department was run by a top officer from the Department of Public Safety.
Ducey, in response to that variety of prior directors, said he’s looking for the “best possible leader.”
“And I think you can find leaders in all the backgrounds that you’re describing,” the governor said, saying he is looking for a “thorough” recruitment process.