Reformers applaud Hobbs' plans for an oversight commission for troubled Arizona prisons

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Governor Katie Hobbs announced the creation of an independent prisons oversight commission to review Arizona's troubled state prison system and produce a report to the public this fall.

According to an executive order issued by Hobbs on Wednesday, the commission members will be appointed by the governor and will include members of the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives, a representative of an "inmate advocacy organization," a member with a background in rehabilitative programming for prisoners, two people formerly incarcerated in Arizona prisons, members with medical and mental health care experience, a family member of a recently incarcerated person, and a representative of correctional workers.

The commission will have the power to inspect prison facilities and records, as well as to interview staff and incarcerated people, in an attempt to monitor issues like department has struggled with, such as health care, security, conditions of facilities, access to nutrition and sanitary products, communication, grievances and staffing.

Gov. Katie Hobbs answers questions during a press conference at the Arizona Capitol on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in Phoenix.

The executive order states the commission was created because "there is an urgent need to provide transparency and accountability of Arizona’s corrections system and . . . safeguarding the integrity of Arizona’s correctional system, preventing misconduct, and identifying responsible ways to reduce costs will benefit all Arizonans."

"Individuals who are incarcerated should receive humane treatment during their incarceration and be prepared for successful reentry into society," the order continues. "Establishing an independent external oversight commission will facilitate the collection and public disclosure of unbiased and accurate information about the state of Arizona’s corrections system.

The executive order states the commission is to submit a preliminary report on Nov. 15, 2023 "outlining initial findings and recommendations from its review."

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The order says the commission will issue more reports "at least annually" to document findings and provide updates.

“We can't deny that there's an urgent need to provide transparency and accountability in Arizona's corrections system,” Hobbs told reporters Wednesday. “Incarcerated Arizonans should be treated humanely and decently, and corrections administrators and officers should feel safe in their workplace."

Last week, Hobbs announced the appointment of Ryan Thornell, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, as the new Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections. Thornell will take over on January 30.

Thornell will face enormous challenges left behind by his predecessors that have been decades in the making.

"Incoming director Thornell cares about transparency and it's one of the main reasons he's the right person to tackle these types of problems," Hobbs said on Wednesday. "But he's going to need the support of the community as well, and this executive order will give him the tools he needs to be successful.”The governor said meetings of the commission would be subject to open meetings law and its members would not be paid.“Any report that is created as a result of an executive order is going to be published in the public record, and this administration is operating on transparency,” Hobbs said.The commission and incoming Department of Corrections director will each report to Hobbs. The commission's work will extend beyond well-known issues with prison healthcare, which have been documented in lengthy lawsuits and punished with hefty fines. Arizona's prison health care system and conditions of confinement were recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.“This committee goes far beyond the scope of the lawsuit, which is specific to health care provided to prisoners,” Hobbs said. “Our office is actively engaging with this case to ensure that we are addressing the issues that have been brought up, which really have largely been ignored until now."Hobbs said she was looking at options, including executive orders, that could allow for sentencing reform or reduce the prison population without requiring action from the legislature. She expects Thornell to make immediate changes to prison operations when he starts work in Arizona, and said he was hired because of his focus on reform.“I don't think there's any disagreement in here that there has been a lack of transparency into these really serious corrections issues, and a lack of real urgency to deal with that and change the way that we're treating folks that are in our custody in the state,” Hobbs said.

The news comes a week after Hobbs announced Arizona would pause executions pending a review of the process by a commissioner who has yet to be named.

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The language in the executive order creating the commission uses some of the exact language from legislation that was introduced by former state Representative Walt Blackman in 2021 to create an independent prison oversight committee. The bill was crafted with input from formerly incarcerated people, and received bipartisan support, but ultimately died.

Blackman said he was excited upon hearing of the executive order.

He said he hopes the commission will work with the new director, as well as review problems previously found by the Arizona Office of Auditor General.

"I really hope that they are able to identify deficiencies based on their oversight, and they're actually able to put resources into fixing those deficiencies," Blackman said.

Kevin Ring, president of the criminal justice reform advocacy group FAMM which has previously lobbied for greater prison oversight in Arizona, called the appointment of the commission an important step.

"Independent oversight will improve the safety and health of incarcerated people and correctional officers," Ring said. "You can’t fix problems without knowing they exist. Oversight will bring much-needed transparency and accountability. We are hopeful that this oversight program, along with the appointment of the new state prison director, signal a commitment to a safer prison system."

Michele Deitch, director of the prison and jail innovation lab at the University of Texas at Austin, also applauded Hobbs' latest prison reform proposal.

"This is a fantastic development, and the governor deserves a lot of credit for recognizing the importance of having independent oversight of our prisons," Deitch said. "It will go a long way toward helping improve safety within these facilities."

Deitch said the creation of a prison oversight commission is in line with national trends and recommendations from the American Bar Association. She says making sure the commission has the staff, resources, and unrestricted access to the prisons will be imperative for its success.

"The ability to go into any facility at any time without prior notice is essential because it allows for an unvarnished view of what is going on inside the facilities and ensures more accuracy in the findings," Deitch said.

While many advocates have pressed for greater prison oversight in recent years, one formerly incarcerated man has made it his life's mission. John Fabricius formed the advocacy group Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections after serving 15 years in state prisons. He says he first thought of the idea when he was forced to clean up the prison grounds ahead of a tour by an Arizona Republic reporter.

"I saw the extent that the government went to obscure that reporter from seeing the reality that was inside of our prison system," Fabricius said.

Fabricius worked with lawmakers for several years to craft the language for prison oversight bills at the Arizona Legislature, much of which ended up in Hobbs' executive order. Fabricius said he was encouraged by the appointment of Thornell as the new director, and thrilled to see Hobbs take action to create an oversight commission.

"Governor Hobbs' administration is indicating a clear understanding of the myriad of issues that exist within the Department of Corrections, and the immediate need to create transparency into this opaque bureaucracy," Fabricius said. "Creating this transparency is the first step of achieving accountability, and making the substantive changes necessary to bringing this agency into compliance with state law and the constitution."

Fabricius said while he applauds the executive action, he believes the commission should codified so that it can have a long-lasting impact on public safety and the rehabilitation of incarcerated people.

Have a news tip on Arizona prisons? Reach the reporter at [email protected] or at 812-243-5582. Follow him on Twitter @JimmyJenkins.Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at [email protected] or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

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