GOP lawmaker pushes ‘dignity’ measure to benefit women prisoners

Row of bars and American old prison cells
Row of bars and American old prison cells

A Republican lawmaker intends to introduce legislation designed to improve the dignity of incarcerated women as the Arizona Department of Corrections plans to reopen a motel-turned-prison to house a continually growing female population.

Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, said this week he will introduce a bill he’s calling the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” to ensure women behind bars have greater access to sanitary products and bonding time with babies born during their sentences. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has a model policy with an identical name and similar provisions.

Blackman’s comments came a week after he ended his sentencing reform ad hoc committee work by forgetting to schedule a presentation from a subcommittee on women’s issues, and just before another legislative committee approved a request from the Department of Corrections to reopen an additional women’s prison in a former motel in Douglas.

In a party-line vote December 11, the Joint Committee on Capitol Review approved the department’s request to provide up to 340 additional prison beds at Douglas Prison’s Papago Unit, a converted motel that previously housed drunk drivers. Formerly incarcerated women, and their advocates, were not allowed to address legislators during the meeting.

Merissa Hamilton, a former aide for Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio and co-chairwoman of Blackman’s subcommittee on women in prison, said she and other advocates hope their concerns and recommendations will be heard during the next legislative session. Subcommittee members shared an informal survey with women who were previously locked up in the state’s women’s prison, Perryville.

“Women have unique and special needs just by the virtue of us being women,” Hamilton said. “We have unique health needs.”

One of those health needs Blackman intends to address with his bill is providing sufficient feminine hygiene products. Prior to February 2018, the Department of Corrections gave each woman 12 sanitary napkins per month.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, introduced legislation last year to require an unlimited supply of products, including not just sanitary napkins but tampons and reusable products. Following public hassling of Republican lawmakers and testimony from former prisoners, the Department of Corrections changed its internal policy to provide 36 pads, tampons or some combination of the two each month. 

However, Blackman said he continues to hear from inmates’ parents and spouses that women don’t receive adequate supplies to manage their periods, either because department officials aren’t providing 36 products a month or because that’s not enough. 

“Everybody is different, so I think we need to increase those things,” he said.

Department policy allows women with medical disorders such as endometriosis to receive more products for free, but they first have to confirm those issues in a medical appointment. The subcommittee’s survey found that incarcerated women rated the health care they received at Perryville very poorly.

And Blackman said he has heard stories of inmates not bothering to make medical appointments because waiting lists are too long. This means that despite the new policy, the department hasn’t fixed the underlying issue, he said. 

“We have to get involved and force them to do it,” he said. “It’s not a big thing to make sure the law is being carried out.”

Another provision of his bill would require the department to allow women who give birth in prison longer visits with their infants than would normally be allowed. Arizona should be looking to other states that have policies that let women develop and maintain relationships with their new babies, he said. 

One example he cited was Tennessee, which allows weekend-long visits. A handful of facilities in other states have full-time prison nurseries, where infants live with their incarcerated mothers, but Blackman said he’s not interested in going that far. 

“The baby’s not growing up in prison,” he said. “We’re talking about visitation.”

Women who responded to the subcommittee’s survey cited a need for help in regaining custody of their young children upon release and making visiting easier. 

“We know that for children to be able to visit their parents frequently when they’re in prison, they should be incarcerated within 100 miles,” said Hamilton, the subcommittee’s co-chairwoman. 

Blackman said he can’t guarantee that his bill — or the women advocating further reforms — will be heard next session. He’s advocating to have his criminal justice bills assigned to multiple committees, a move lawmakers generally oppose because it increases the procedural hurdles legislation faces, just to increase the chances the bills will be heard if not passed. 

“God willing that I have an opportunity to come back and serve next term and the speaker sees fit to put me in a position to hear these types of bills,” Blackman said. “The bills that didn’t get heard when we’re talking about criminal justice reform will get heard. Every bill that’s serious enough should have the opportunity to speak for itself and have the members vote yes or no on the merits of the bill.”

Senate panel chair hot seat in 2022

Phoenix, AZ – Nov. 30, 2019: The State Senate building is directly beside the Arizona State Capitol building. (Stock/Deposit Photo

One of the most high-profile committee chairmanships in the Legislature is up for grabs. 

Senate Government Committee Chairwoman Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, created the vacancy when she resigned from the committee September 30. She has a record of sponsoring Republican election legislation, but she has also publicly criticized the Senate’s partisan audit of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County, and it’s the committee that will likely be taking up legislation arising from the audit.  

 As of October 7, Senate President Karen Fann had yet to announce who she will appoint to the committee in Ugenti-Rita’s place and who the next chairman will be. Whoever it is, they will be in the spotlight in 2022. With some GOP lawmakers calling for changes to voting laws and election procedures in response to the audit report, next year’s session, like this year’s, could be marked by bitter partisan battles over measures that Republicans say will help safeguard against fraud, but Democrats view as attempts to make it harder to vote and put the Legislature’s thumb on the scale in the wake of President Biden’s narrow win in Arizona. 

Kelly Townsend

Some conservatives who want to see the Legislature take a harder line on these issues are hoping Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who is the Government Committee’s vice chairwoman, be appointed to lead it, and pro-audit social media accounts have been urging their followers to email Fann to support Townsend. 

“Sen. Kelly Townsend has the most experience in election integrity and the most knowledgeable in Arizona’s election procedures,” said a message on the Telegram account of EZAZ, a conservative group founded by former Phoenix mayoral candidate Merissa Hamilton. “She has a great relationship with the County Recorders and is best positioned to serve the people as Chair of the Government and Elections Committee.” 

Townsend didn’t directly answer when asked if she wants the job. 

“I honestly haven’t heard anything about who is going to be filling that position,” she said in a text message. “I am sure Senate President Fann will find the appropriate person.” 

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he hasn’t heard anything about who will be appointed in Ugenti-Rita’s place or who the next chairman might be. He said he isn’t interested in a spot on the committee, and doesn’t know why Ugenti-Rita stepped down, beyond what was in her two-paragraph letter. 

And while Ugenti-Rita gave no reasons in writing to Fann for her departure from the committee, her views on the audit could make her a lightning rod of controversy as she runs for the GOP nomination for secretary of state. Supporters of former President Trump, who typically support the audit, also booed her off the stage at a July 24 Trump rally. The other GOP candidates for secretary of state include Reps. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, and Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, both of whom supported the audit. Trump has endorsed Finchem for the position. 

Michelle Ugenti-Rita

“My longstanding commitment to advancing real election integrity legislation is what drives me,” Ugenti-Rita wrote to Fann. “As always, I stand ready and committed to achieving success in reforming our election system and having a productive 2022 legislative session.” 

Ugenti-Rita was the chairwoman of the House Elections and Government committees during much of her tenure in that chamber, prior to her election to the Senate in 2018. This year, she was the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 1485, a bill to remove some voters from the Active (formerly called the Permanent) Early Voting List. Democrats strongly opposed SB1485, which ended up being one of the few major pieces of election-related legislation to pass this year. 

Townsend has criticized Ugenti-Rita for blocking some of her election bills this year, and the session ended with Townsend and Ugenti-Rita killing bills of each other’s that the rest of the Senate’s Republicans supported.