Gov. Katie Hobbs forms special commission to review Arizona's prison system

By Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2023 - 8:47am
Updated: Thursday, January 26, 2023 - 9:18am

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Katie Hobbs
Emily Mai/Cronkite News
Gov. Katie Hobbs announces an independent prison oversight commission on Jan. 25, 2023.

Saying the problems there have been have been ignored for years, Gov. Katie Hobbs formed a special commission Wednesday to review operations of the state prison system.

The panel is being charged at looking at everything from security and staffing levels to the ability of inmates to speak with family members and and access basic necessities like nutrition, medicines and sanitary products. A preliminary report is due Nov. 15.

But the governor made it clear she’s not going to wait that long to address one particular issue on the commission’s agenda: the accessibility and quality of medical care and mental health programs.

That, Hobbs said, requires more immediate attention. And at least part of the reason for that is the state is under federal court order to fix the system.

In a ruling last year, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver declared that the care provided by the state at prison is “plainly grossly inadequate” and state officials are acting “with deliberate indifference” to the substantial risk of harm to inmates.

More to the point, Silver said in her 200-page order that top prison officials not only were aware of conditions that resulted in serious — and unnecessary — physical injury and death to inmates but that they actively ignored the problems.

And none of that was news to prison officials — or then-Gov. Doug Ducey.

The lawsuit was filed in 2012 on behalf of inmates. The state agreed to a settlement which was signed in 2015, Ducey’s first year in office, promising to do better. And the state was fined $1.4 million in 2018 for failing to live up to the performance measures to which it had agreed, with Silver imposing another $1.1 million penalty in 2021.

David Shinn — who was Ducey’s director of the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry — is gone, having been replaced by Hobbs with Ryan Thornell who until now has been deputy corrections director in Maine.

“Our office is actively engaging with this case to make sure that we are addressing the issues that have been brought up, which really have largely been ignored until now,” Hobbs said.

“We intend to focus on what needs to be done and turn this around and provide humane treatment to folks in our care,” the governor continued. “We’re under now judge’s orders. And they’ve been ignored.”

Less clear, Hobbs said, is whether there actually has been a cover-up of the deficiencies in the prison system.

“That’s part of what we need to find out,” she said.

Silver, in her order last year, definitely had some thoughts on the issue. She said prison officials had been purposely turning a blind eye to the unconstitutional conditions in the system that is responsible for nearly 34,000 inmates.

“Despite years of knowledge, driven by this litigation and defendants’ monitoring of private healthcare contractors’ performance, defendants have in fact made no significant attempts to substantively change the health care system and compel sufficient staffing,” Silver wrote.

“Thus, defendants are acting with deliberate indifference to plaintiffs’ serious medical and mental health care needs,” she continued. And the judge said the testimony from both Shinn and others during the trial “provides compelling evidence of knowledge of the failures but a refusal to take meaningful measures to correct systemic flaws.”

Silver even accused Shinn of being more interested in protecting himself from criticism than protecting inmates.

Arizona State Prison Complex - Florence
Arizona Department of Corrections
Arizona State Prison Complex - Florence.

Hobbs agreed with Silver’s overall assessment.

“I don’t think there is any disagreement in here that there has been a lack of transparency into these really serious corrections issues, and a lack of, really, any urgency to deal with them and change the way that we’re treating folks that are in our custody in the state,” she said. And the governor said there have been a “myriad of problems that have continued to exist.”

“That’s why we’re bringing in a director who’s focused on reform,” Hobbs said.

The governor said Thornell is “absolutely aware of the issues he’s walking into with this department.”

For the moment, though, he is simply Hobbs’ nominee. The Democratic governor has to get him confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, though he can serve up to a year without confirmation.

Hobbs said her office is “in the process” of sending his nomination to the Senate, along with others she has tapped to head state agencies. And she said she is counting on lawmakers approving her choices.

“We believe they are focused on their role as public servants,” the governor said. “I am hopeful they will give my nominees a fair hearing.”

One question that already is being raised is that Thornell has not dealt with anything the size of Arizona. At last report, Maine had fewer than 2,200 inmates.

“It’s surprising they’re saying this without the nomination paperwork in front of them,” Hobbs said.

But the governor’s office has provided not much more in details about his background other than his position in Maine.

In a press release when he was named, Hobbs said that Thornell “has led significant initiatives that re-envision traditional policies and approaches to incarceration, reforming a wide variety of adult corrections areas, challenging the status quo, and implementing 21st century, normalized corrections practices.”

The commission Hobbs is forming includes two members of the House and two members of the Senate, from different political parties, a representative of an “inmate advocacy organization” that the governor will select. Others include a physician, a mental health professional, a representative of an organization of corrections officers as well as previously incarcerated men and women and a close relative of someone who had served at least three years behind bars.

Whether replacing Shinn is enough may be an open question.

After Silver issued her order last year, Walt Blackman, then a a Republican state representative from Snowflake, told Capitol Media Services that it was clear to him that Shinn was ignoring obvious problems and saying everything is just fine at the agency. Blackman said he saw the same thing when the director was called before lawmakers to answer findings by the state Auditor General’s Office about other problems in the system.

But Blackman said at the time that the firings shouldn’t stop with Shinn, saying the state needs to “clean house” of deputy directors and wardens who have been there for years and are running their facilities as if they are independent operations.
“So instead of taking their directions from the director ... they are doing their own thing,” he said. “And that’s a problem.”

In fighting the lawsuit under Ducey, attorneys for the state did not dispute the multiple examples that Silver cited of inmates who died or were harmed due to lack of medical care. Instead, they argued these were “simply isolated occurrences” that do not show a pattern or practice of providing deficient health care.

The judge wasn’t buying it.

“The overwhelming evidence shows these cases indicate the opposite,” Silver wrote, pointing out the number of encounters each of these inmates had with the prison medical system, including many different personnel.

“It is impossible to conclude their treatment represented isolated occurrences,” she said. “Rather, these outcomes show that if a prisoner develops as serious health condition while in ADCRR custody, he or she is at substantial risk of grievous harm or death due to medical personnel’s inability to accurately assess and diagnose such conditions.”

Politics Arizona PrisonsLaw Enforcement