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New Arizona prison boss once restricted books for inmates

FILE - This July 23, 2014 file photo shows a state prison in Florence, Ariz. A book that discusses the impact of the criminal justice system on black men is being kept out of the hands of Arizona prison inmates. The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the Arizona Department of Corrections to rescind a ban on "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." (AP Photo/File)

This July 23, 2014 file photo shows a state prison in Florence.  (AP Photo/File)

The new head of the state Department of Corrections is a career employee of the federal Bureau of Prisons where last year he instituted a policy that restricted access to books by inmates.

On Monday, Gov. Doug Ducey tapped David Shinn to take over the $1 billion a year system which has a staff of 8,500, houses nearly 34,000 inmates and oversees another 8,200 in private prisons.

Shinn is currently the assistant director of the Program Review Division for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

David Shinn

David Shinn

His official biography for that agency said he oversees a wide variety of areas, including guiding managers in the assessment of operations, assisting management in the strategic planning process, and coordinating and monitoring oversight activities of auditors. In that last role, according to the governor’s office, he oversaw more than 575 audits annually.

But it was his position before that, as complex warden at the federal prison at Victorville, Calif., that generated some protest and publicity.

Last year, in that position, Shinn implemented a policy that prohibited inmates from obtaining books from a publisher, bookstore, book club, friends or family through the mail. The order said it was done to “increase the safety and security of staff and inmates.”

Instead, inmates were told they would have to submit an electronic request, specifying not just the book  title, author and edition but the unique International Standard Book number. The staff then would respond with a book price – retail plus a 30 percent markup, plus shipping.

Mailings were restricted to no more than five soft-cover books, with that number being the absolute maximum any inmate could possess “to prevent the materials from becoming sanitation, security and/or a housekeeping hazard.”

Shinn, in the memo, said this was in response to “multiple occurrences involving illicit drugs.”

The change drew immediate fire.

“This policy is a discriminatory and destructive attack on access to literature and other reading and educational materials for thousands of people in prison, shutting them off from works that can reduce recidivism and better connect them to the outside world,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs for PEN America, a charitable organization which includes writers, editors, publishers and other writing professionals.

In the press release last year after the policy was implemented, Lopez said it forces inmates “to pay potentially exorbitant prices for books they could receive for free from friends, family or charities.” And she said that effectively makes it impossible for some inmates to access books not available in prison libraries.

Lopez told Capitol Media Services on Monday that the policy, implemented at Victorville and one other federal prison in California, was rescinded after public pressure from her organization and others.

Ducey’s office would not make Shinn available nor provide contact information. Instead, gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak provided a prepared statement, saying that Ducey was “aware” before he appointed Shinn about the policy limiting access to books.

“This was a policy geared towards mitigating any narcotics and illegal contraband from entering the prisons,” Ptak said. “He will prioritize security for everyone in our prisons while continuing Arizona’s focus on preparing inmates for success after serving their time.”

Shinn replaces Charles Ryan who retired at the end of last month.

That resignation came as a report on the agency prepared by two former Arizona Supreme Court justices concluding that Ryan was “surprisingly uninformed” about what was going on in the Department of Corrections, including locks that did not work and inmates leaving their cells and starting fights and fires. The justices said Ryan was cut off from what was happening by being surrounded by “yes” men.

Ducey said at the time he wanted to “change the culture” at the agency with a new director.

In a prepared statement announcing Shinn’s appointment, the governor said his goal was to find someone with extensive corrections experience, a record of solving problems and getting results, and a passion for public service.

“David Shinn is that leader,” Ducey said.

The appointment drew praise from Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, which has been at the forefront of urging reforms in Arizona’s prison system and had previously called for Ryan to be fired.

“I don’t know a thing about the guy,” Isaacs told Capitol Media Services.

“What I can say is it’s encouraging that the governor saw fit to hire outside the department,” she said. “That hopefully signals that he is willing to bring in someone who’s going to make some significant changes.”

Shinn’s Bureau of Prisons bio says he started with that agency in 1991 as a legal technician at a San Diego correctional facility. He also was a corrections officer in New Jersey, leading to “positions of increasing responsibility,” including to Victorville and, in August 2018, his current position in the program review division.


  1. Well I think we all know Ducey is not for education, until under public pressure . And does not seemed concerned about it for those who will be getting out some day. By appointing this chump. Most states allow hardcover and not new books , Used book through Amazon. AZ only new books which are costly. A few organizations are sending free twice a year to prisoners who request and they were outraged at this rule this warden came up with , which is draconian . BTW most books requested by inmates are how to books, how to do wiring, plumbing and bibles. And he is retricting based on ‘safely’ give me a break 1

  2. arizona is already practicing this – only new books that are expensive and only from barnes and noble

  3. Another prison policing for profit person running a poorly ran system. Just like politicians it is time to clean house. We rank with China in incarcerating people, doing nothing for reform and violating basic human rights. 1/3 are mental health, 1/3 addicts and the rest criminals. There is barely any contact visits, yet drugs are prevalent. So who do you think are bringing in the contraband? yes the wolves watching the hen house. Wh

  4. I spent 20 years in this system and I can tell you they dont care about recidivism at all we used to be able to have hobby craft and school but now it’s only dead time and you learn nothing to help you succeed once you hit the streets. Think about it if you take the books like you have taken everything else you just keep them ignorant and bored with nothing to do but hurt one another and sell or do drugs to try and survive! What kind of chance is that. I could go on and on about all this but the main point is it’s all about $ a billion a year to lock everyone up use it to rehabilitate and help them get a job and contribute back to society but no private corporations wont let that happin it’s all about numbers!

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