Gov. Hobbs creates committee to study problems at Arizona prisons

Last summer, a federal judge concluded Arizona violated the rights of incarcerated people in state-run prisons by providing them with inadequate health care.
Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 2:05 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5/AP) - Gov. Katie Hobbs signed her sixth executive order on Wednesday, this time establishing an Independent Prison Oversight Commission as part of her First 100 Days Initiative. According to the order, the commission will examine inmate access to food, medicine and sanitary products; whether prison staffing levels are adequate; conditions of the prisons, including security measures and whether they are crowded; rehabilitation and education programs for prisoners; and access to medical and mental health care and drug treatment programs. “We cannot deny there is an urgent need to provide transparency and accountability in Arizona’s corrections system. Incarcerated Arizonans should be treated humanely and decently and corrections administrators and officers should feel safe in their workplace,” Gov. Hobbs said. “These are not new issues. They’ve been ignored for a long time. So we need to take relatively quick action.”

David Fathi, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents Arizona prisoners who challenged the quality of health care behind bars, applauded the establishment of the commission. He said previous governors took a hands-off approach to prisons. “They were disengaged and uninvolved,” Fathi said. “Gov. Hobbs seems to be charting a very different course.”

Last summer, a federal judge concluded Arizona had violated the rights of incarcerated people in state-run prisons by providing them with inadequate health care — and that the state’s failures had led to preventable deaths. Before the trial in that case, U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver threw out a settlement because the state wasn’t following through on many of the improvements to prisoner care it had promised to make. She concluded that $2.5 million in contempt of court fines against the state didn’t motivate it to comply with the settlement. In late 2021, then-Corrections Director David Shinn testified that prisoners often have greater access to health services than people who aren’t locked up, leading Silver to later say that the claim was “completely detached from reality.”

The commission’s members will include four state lawmakers, two people who previously served time in Arizona prisons, a physician, a mental health professional and a family member of someone who served at least three years in Arizona prisons. The commission would produce a report by Nov. 15, outlining initial findings and providing recommendations for improvement. “I think this oversight commission is going to be helpful pointing the light where it needs to be in regards to changes that need to be made,” Hobbs said.

“We are deeply thrilled that the governor has issued this executive order. It is absolutely necessary to have transparency in the department of corrections,” said John Fabricius, the executive director of Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections. Having previously served a 15-year sentence in state prison, he says the treatment there was inhumane. “This is not a party issue. This is not a nonpartisan issue that requires a bipartisan solution,” he added.

But not everyone is happy with Hobbs’ use of executive order. “The people of Arizona did not elect Katie Hobbs to rule by executive fiat. The Arizona Freedom Caucus will oppose Katie Hobbs’ woke agenda; you can bet your ass that will happen,” state Sen. Jake Hoffman, a Republican from Queen Creek, said earlier this month.

Last week, Hobbs ordered a review of Arizona’s execution protocols, leading Kris Mayes, the state’s new Democratic attorney general, to hold off on seeking court orders to execute prisoners until the examination is completed. The review was announced just days after the governor appointed Ryan Thornell, a prison official in Maine, as Arizona’s new corrections director.

The review will examine, among other things, the state’s procurement process for lethal injection drugs and lethal gas, execution procedures, the access of news organizations to executions and the training of staff to carry out executions. Arizona currently has 110 prisoners on death row. The state carried out three executions last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus brought on by criticism that a 2014 execution was botched and because of difficulties obtaining lethal injection drugs.

At the national level, toward the end of 2022, many senators across the U.S. called for more transparency within the federal Bureau of Prisons after the Associated Press released a report revealing systemic corruption in the prison system. The bill, called the Federal Prison Oversight Act, was introduced in September but has not gained further traction as of yet.