Arizona Inmates Lead Discussion On Criminal Justice Reform
Arizona Town Hall President Tara Jackson has organized community discussions all over the state. But Thursday was different.
“We’ve never done anything like this," Jackson said. "The Department of Corrections has never done anything like this.”
Participants gathered at the Eagle Point Second Chance Center, a lower security facility at the Arizona State Prison Complex – Lewis in Buckeye.
The day room was washed in light as men in immaculately white tennis shoes walked in to take their seats among ASU students, business leaders and reform advocates.
Tattooed arms reached out reluctantly from bright orange shirts to shake hands with fellow members of the community.
“When we took on this topic, it seemed to me that it was really important that we needed to have the voice of the inmates," Jackson said. "They’re the front lines. They can tell us what would really make a difference.”
Jackson prompted the group discussion with questions.
“What could be done and by whom," she asked, "to improve Arizona’s Criminal Justice system, prior to incarceration?”
No one here is shackled, there are guards present but everyone is at ease. This group of men are close to release. ADC Director Charles Ryan says most of them will be out in less than 60 days.
“They all have one thing in common," Ryan said. "They are considered high to moderate risk to recidivate.”
According to the Department of Corrections, 39 percent of people released from Arizona prisons will return within three years. Eagle Point is supposed to serve as a transitional stage where inmates can start to think about life outside, and prepare for the temptations that lie in wait.
Jeremy Schall runs substance abuse programs at the Center.
“I’m a recovery support specialist here and my obligation is to the guys going out,” he said.
Schall helps his fellow inmates get ready for release. He said the programming is a good start, but people struggling with drug addiction could benefit from a longer stay in the Second Chance Center.
“I believe, from what I understand and the research I’ve done, that it’s cheaper to treat us rather than just lock us away,” he said.
Steven Varnadore hopes the town hall discussion will help to fight against the negative stigma that he and others face after being convicted of a crime.
"Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life and having to tell that story over and over and over again in your day-to-day life," he said. "When you go get an apartment, when you get a job, your everyday interactions of who you communicate with — you almost have a scarlet letter, per se, upon you.”
Varnadore came to prison later than most. At age 50, he said one crime does not define his life.
“Society has to be able to know I’m still a human being," he said. "I made a poor choice, I’ll grant you that, but I’m still having to go back out into the community.”
Casey Scott-Mitchell was a table facilitator for the town hall.
"My job was to keep the conversation flowing, make sure everyone had a voice at the table,” she said.
She moderated a discussion with current and former inmates where she learned about the costs of returning to society. She said hearing what little funds prisoners have upon release to acquire things like housing and transportation was especially surprising.
At the end of the discussion, everyone writes down an action they promise to take going forward called an “I Will statement.” Scott-Mitchell said she’s going to work on confronting her bias against people that have been incarcerated.
“Teaching my kids too — and challenging community partners and professionals that I work with that, like, we have to change the perception, I feel like that’s a big piece.”
A bell rings to signal the end of the day’s discussion. The statewide Town Hall will take place in November where the reports from all of the individual sessions are compiled and used to generate a final report.
Tara Jackson said she hopes it will help people look at those convicted of a crime in a different way — with empathy rather than contempt.
“Understanding that if someone gets out of prison, if you are helping them to reintegrate into the community, you’re helping to make the community safer,” she said.