Arizona Department of Corrections Publishes, Then Rescinds New Policy Restricting Prison Tours

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2019 - 2:00pm
Updated: Wednesday, July 24, 2019 - 8:24am

The Arizona Department of Corrections issued a new Department Order that omitted “Elected Officials” and “News Media” from a list of individuals allowed to request prison tours. The new order also removed a clause exempting elected officials from the process.

A draft for a new order was posted on the ADC website Monday evening, but then taken down Tuesday morning after KJZZ contacted the department for a comment. According to a copy of the order, the new policy was set to take effect Aug. 22.

A side-by-side comparison between the two versions of the Arizona Department of Corrections Department Order Manual.

Representative Athena Salman, who has advocated for the rights of women incarcerated at the Perryville Prison and toured the facility, called the change “outrageous.”

“In a time where it’s been made clear that the executive branch is not willing to hold the Department of Corrections and Director Charles Ryan responsible, and accountable, it really defaults to the media and the Legislative branch,” Salman said. “Now that there is a lot of pressure coming from the media and the Legislature, the idea that the prisons then think that they can restrict access and make it more difficult for elected officials and journalists to investigate — that is just completely reckless.”

Salman said  she was surprised by the wording of the new order because she and a group of other state lawmakers currently have a prison tour scheduled for the end of the month.

Salman said it would be even more alarming if the Governor’s Office was involved in any way “in restricting a separate branch of government access to an agency that we fund at the tune of a billion dollars.”

The proposed policy change came amidst a social media movement prompted by sentencing reform group FAMM dubbed #VisitAPrison, which encourages state lawmakers to visit prisons.

Molly Gill is vice president of policy at FAMM. She said so far more than 50 lawmakers have accepted the challenge and pledged to take a tour.

When presented with the new Department Order from the ADC, Gill said it begs a question: “What does the DOC have to hide from the lawmakers who control its funding?”

“The department shouldn’t expect to receive its billion-dollar budget from lawmakers if it’s not willing to let them in to see how that money is being spent,” Gill said. “A policy change like this shows why lawmakers need to visit prisons more often and provide more oversight, not less. No government actor getting one billion dollars of taxpayer money every year is entitled to operate in a black box, especially when human lives are at stake.”

Representative Kirsten Engel serves on the House Judiciary Committee. She recently accepted the #VisitAPrison challenge from a constituent and said she found the ADC policy change “very concerning.”

“As public officials we have a duty to inform ourselves about the conditions in state prison facilities and it seems this change could prevent us from doing our job,” Engel said.

She questions the timing of the policy change. “There is interest in the conditions in Arizona prisons and what we see is rather than cooperation and transparency is they change their policy to seemingly keep us out and unable to see what’s happening.”

Dan Barr, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, called for the Department of Corrections to reverse its course.

“I hope the new policy’s omission of the news media and elected officials is an oversight that will be corrected immediately,” Barr said. “The events of the last few years regarding the abysmal health care provided in the prisons, the absence of working locks on prison doors and chronic understaffing show that the Arizona prison system needs far more attention, not less, from the news media and elected officials. “

ASU Law School First Amendment Clinic Executive Director Gregg Leslie said the change appears to give the Department of Corrections greater discretion as to who is allowed to visit state prisons.

“It does seem to put a less friendly system in place for the media,” Leslie said, “where they don’t have the right to a tour but they can still ask for one.” Leslie said the language in the order also seems to restrict the rights of the public to tour prisons.

Leslie said the United States Supreme Court has ruled that there is not a special right of the media to tour a prison or talk to prisoners, as long as the public has a right of access. “But if a prison takes away the public right of access by not letting the media be treated the same way for matters of public tours, that’s a bit problematic,” Leslie said.

“They’re chipping away at those general public rights of access, and that might make the journalists’ First Amendment argument even stronger,” Leslie said. “Now that the public is being denied meaningful avenues of oversight of the prison system there is a constitutional right of the media to actually get in there and know what’s happening,”

“Prisons have to realize that journalists should be granted any access they want,” Leslie said. “Their public image will improve if they allow greater media access. Yes, in the short term, it will probably expose more problems, but that’s called accountability and it serves everyone’s purpose in the end.”

Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder called the removal of the language referencing Elected Officials and media “unintentional.”

“After concluding a policy review pilot program in late 2018, ADC’s Policy Unit was tasked with an aggressive Department Order review schedule, utilizing a three-year cycle,” Wilder said. “As part of the process, teams will identify and remove duplicate or some referring language from Department Orders in order to reduce confusion that can be caused when one DO is refreshed and/or updated, yet a subordinate policy has not.”

Wilder said the section of Department Orders dealing with Public Access has a stand-alone policy handling tours of elected officials and for news media.

“The 'new' version of DO #202 that was posted online yesterday has been rescinded so staff may revise to include the previous section 1.10 language (though it may fall under a different section number),” Wilder said. “Bottom line to appreciate is that the revision of DO #202 does not restrict access, because elected officials and news media both already had (and will continue to have) specific stand-alone policies in place. Those policies remain effective and enforceable, and the access for those groups has not been restricted in any way.”

Below shows the two versions of the Arizona Department of Corrections Department Order Manual. 

A side-by-side comparison of the old (left) and new versions of the Arizona Department of Corrections Order Manual.

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