A Senate panel voted unanimously on Tuesday to recommend the approval of Ryan Thornell as director of the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry and discussed the state’s actions related to the death penalty.
Thornell was nominated by Gov. Katie Hobbs to lead the department on Jan. 30, and he’s been leading the department as interim director since then. He must now be considered by the full Senate.
In March, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a warrant for the execution of Aaron Gunches, a convicted murderer on death row.
Hobbs, Attorney General Kris Mayes and Thornell allowed that warrant to lapse without the execution taking place, which Thornell explained to the committee.
Thornell said at the time that ADCRR couldn’t execute anyone because it didn’t have the team or the supplies necessary. “We were not done with our review, and we were not confident in our protocols,” he said Tuesday.
Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said at the time that she got different information from former ADCRR Deputy Director Frank Strada on the department’s preparedness.
The family of Gunches’ victim filed a lawsuit asking for the death penalty to be carried out and named Hobbs and Thornell as plaintiffs.
Mayes announced that Hobbs wants to pause executions while reviewing the procedures with an independent commissioner, noting that Arizona has botched executions in the past.
As of now, Thornell said Hobbs’ review commissioner is working with the Attorney General’s Office and hasn’t reached out to ADCRR yet.
Thornell was previously appointed to a top role at the Maine Department of Corrections by a Republican governor. Maine has no death penalty.
He added that his preparations to get the department ready to issue executions has nothing to do with Hobbs and said plainly that he does not oppose the death penalty.
Although some lawmakers still contend a death warrant issued by the Arizona Supreme Court requires the state to carry out Gunches’ execution, the court ruled in March that a warrant only “authorizes” the state to execute him.
There will be an oral argument on the Gunches case later this month.
Another contentious topic he addressed is Arizona’s use of private prisons. Seven of the state’s 16 prison complexes are private and run by three contractors.
Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, made it clear that she doesn’t support private prisons in her questions to Thornell, but he argued that they serve an important purpose. Without them, he said his department’s ability to do its job would be severely impacted.
There are some changes Thornell wants to bring to the department, specifically, better communication, upgraded technology and training on use of force.
Thornell clarified that force is necessary and he won’t change the types of punishments utilized in state prisons – but wants to avoid incidents of unnecessary force he said are an issue.
Committee Chair Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, expressed concern about comments Thornell made in a video sent to ADCRR staff where he talked about wanting to change the “culture” of the department.
“I think this is an important opportunity for the Senate to watch and see. … We don’t want folks who are going to be making policy on their own going rogue or engaging in partisan agendas,” Hoffman said.
Arizona has one of the higher incarceration rates per capita in the country and upwards of 30,000 inmates. Thornell talked about decreasing recidivism and rehabilitating inmates.
Hoffman questioned whether prisons are “coddling” inmates too much with special amenities and resources he said that other people don’t have access to. “Isn’t there an inherent kind of inequity in investing those type of resources in the felon population?” Hoffman asked.
“We can’t only set them in a cell 24 hours a day,” Thornell said. He cited the word rehabilitation in his department’s name and the concern that inmates without adequate resources will be released back into society worse than when they came in. “Then we will have a higher rate of recidivism, a higher rate of crime,” he said. Thornell said that assessments help determine what opportunities the inmates get.
In January, a U.S. district judge issued a remedial order to the Arizona DOC requiring significant changes so that the facilities will provide adequate health care and housing to inmates. In June of last year, the judge found DOC violated the constitution with prison conditions. Thornell will be tasked with implementing those changes in a tight timeframe if he’s approved by the full Senate.
Thornell told the committee on Tuesday that the order highlights the need to treat Hepatitis C, substance abuse disorder and treatment of inmates with severe mental health issues. The first of several deadlines laid out in the court order for the department to make these changes is Wednesday.
Clarification: The 12th paragraph of this story has been revised to clarify that the Arizona Supreme Court settled the question of whether the court’s death warrant for Aaron Gunches legally requires the state to carry out the execution or simply authorizes the execution.