Prison panel to focus on 4 key areas

Prison panel to focus on 4 key areas

Hobbs, prison commission
Gov. Katie Hobbs’ prison oversight commission met for the first time last week. It will split into four working groups to create recommendations by the end of the year as it aims to tackle the state’s troubled prison system. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Gov. Katie Hobbs’ prison oversight commission will split into four working groups to develop proposals by the end of the year, advisers said at the newly created commission’s first meeting last week.

The groups will focus on staffing; health care; resident services, programming and reentry; and facilities, said Molly Murphy, a policy adviser for Hobbs.

The commission’s first gathering offered an early preview of how it will tackle one of the state government’s thorniest problems – the troubled Arizona prison system – and showed signs of potential conflict in the process.

Hobbs kicked off the meeting by lamenting the current state of affairs in the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

“We have found cover-ups where there should have been policy changes and excuses where there should have been action,” the governor said at the April 28 meeting.

“For years, during my time in the Legislature, I’ve known that a lot needs to be done here, but because of a persistent lack of transparency, it’s hard to even know the scope of that – and that’s partly what we’re here to find out,” she added at another point.

Ryan Thornell, the Department of Corrections director who came to Arizona from Maine to take over the agency, indicated his wide-ranging plans for reform.

“We don’t have to use power and control to accomplish good outcomes … that is going to be our approach. We’re going to replace power and control, we’re going to bring in respect, we’re going to build rapport,” he said.

The commission includes lawmakers, doctors, formerly imprisoned people and others connected to the justice system.

The only two sitting legislators in the group are both Democrats: Rep. Analise Ortiz, D-Glendale, and Sen. Brian Fernandez, D-Yuma. The group also includes Walt Blackman, a former Republican lawmaker from Snowflake who sponsored a number of criminal justice reform bills while he was in the Legislature. Blackman introduced himself by saying he wants to be part of the solution to prison reform “despite my party affiliation.”

One of the main challenges the commission will address is prison health care. Arizona has paid millions in fines for failing to provide adequate health care in prisons and is under a federal court order to improve medical care that a judge found to be “plainly grossly inadequate.”

Jonathan Cartsonis, a University of Arizona physician on the commission, said he’s been “horrified” about news stories he’s read about the state of medical care in state prisons, including preventable deaths.

Still, when Hobbs announced the creation of the commission back in February, she said its work would go “far beyond the scope of the lawsuit,” which didn’t address ongoing prison problems outside of health care issues.

The commission is tasked with producing a report and recommendations by November. Then it will be up to Hobbs and her allies to handle a potentially more difficult challenge – implementing the recommendations they like while both legislative chambers are controlled by Republicans.

Another hot-button issue is Arizona’s use of private prison operators like CoreCivic. In a January budget briefing, aides to the governor said they anticipated reviewing the state’s use of private prisons but wouldn’t say whether they expected to continue the contracts or not.

Senate, Hobbs, prison commission
Sen. Brian Fernandez, D-Yuma

At the commission meeting, Fernandez said he wants to review the details of those contracts as part of the work.

A potential source of tension in the group’s work could be the simultaneous aims of providing better care to prisoners – even basic needs like health care and adequate food – and bolstering the ranks of corrections officers.

Carmen Hreniuc, whose son is incarcerated in Arizona, spoke about those and other needs at the meeting.

“If someone is having an issue, and they have a connection with one of the COs that can help them – all of a sudden, they’re (the corrections officer) gone,” she said, before saying that insufficient meal portions are another recurring issue.

“Nutrition is huge – if you don’t feed people properly, their cognitive thought process is not there. They can’t grow, they can’t go to the classes, they can’t go to the programs.”

The meeting was open to the press, but only a few reporters showed up for the event. Weeks ago, Hobbs faced criticism for holding the first meeting of an elections task force in a closed session.

On April 28, most of the members seemed to share Hobbs and Thornell’s vision for progressive reform of the prison system, but there were some hiccups.

Kara Janssen, who works for the ACLU and said she has served two prison sentences in Arizona, asked members to use the term “incarcerated people” rather than “inmate.”

Murphy, the policy adviser, sought to preemptively diffuse any tension.

“I think being respectful of the words everyone’s choosing, and respectfully making a comment like that is a great way to do that… I know a lot of times words are changing and the correct terms – it can sometimes be hard to keep up with,” she said.

Brent Richards, a longtime corrections officer, spoke next. Without replying directly to Janssen’s point, he said that, in prison, a lot of things happen in a certain way “for the inmates and for the staff.”

And he added what sounded like a word of warning to those hoping to move quickly with reforms.

“We always have to remember in prison: safety. So some things happen certain ways because of security risks or issues… And sometimes certain things happen – you might not like that it happens that way – but until we can figure out how to do it better, we’re trying to be safe and secure.”