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Report finds governor's prison oversight committee lacks power to address issues

Members of a special panel appointed by Gov. Katie Hobbs to look at the state prison system are telling her they can’t do the job she asked them to do: provide actual — and meaningful — oversight of the $1.1 billion operation where about 35,000 people are locked up.

The preliminary report of the Prison Oversight Commission says it held regular meetings, conducted two site visits and reviewed data from the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry. All that, it says, was in line with the governor’s executive order shortly after she took office in January to look at everything from medical and mental health care, to prison security, nutrition and access to family members and legal representatives.

And the report did find a variety of issues ranging from meal quality and access to basic hygiene items to being able to call family and lawyers.

But the main thing they they concluded is that what the governor created lacks what former state Rep. Walt Blackman, a member of the panel calls “teeth.” That means the time, the staff, the resources and the power to actually do anything.

He suggested it could be structured like the Auditor General’s Office, which not only has a full-time staff but has the power to issue reports of shortcomings it finds in state agencies and the ability to follow up to ensure that recommended fixes are implemented.

The bottom line, panel members said, is that if Hobbs really wants the external oversight she called for in her executive order she is going to need something far different than what she formed: a panel of 11 who, except for someone from the prison system, all have other jobs.

“A volunteer commission faces significant challenges to conducting meaningful, independent oversight of the state’s corrections system,” according to the report obtained by Capitol Media Services. “Significant time must be dedicated to deliver effective solutions.”

Panel members said what they can do is serve as an advisory commission.

They said, though, actual oversight requires something more. And that starts with independence.

“It cannot truly serve as an independent oversight commission while housed within the governor’s office,” members said.

So what they want is a permanent panel, with dedicated funding and staffing “to accomplish meaningful and credible work.” And that will require legislative changes, not just to empower a commission but to ensure that it becomes a permanent fixture, not subject to the whims of whoever is in the governor’s office.

There actually is such a model.

Blackman, who was a Republican state representative, introduced legislation in 2022 to create a separate Office of the Independent Corrections Oversight Committee, complete with the power to subpoena documents and investigate complaints by not just inmates but staffers. It also would be charged with making specific — and public — recommendations of improvements.

But Blackman could not even get fellow Republican Rep. Kevin Payne of Peoria to give it a hearing in the Houses Committee on Military and Public Safety, which he heads. So the bill died.

Blackman did not seek reelection that year, opting instead to make an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He is, however, trying to get his old House seat back in 2024.

In the interim, though, he is working with Rep. Analise Ortiz, a Phoenix Democrat who also was on the governor’s commission, to craft something for this coming session. And she told Capitol Media Services she believes the situation in the correctional system — and, more to the point, the costs of everything from federal lawsuits over heath care to recidivism — has finally reached the point where there could be bipartisan support for more oversight.

Only thing is, Hobbs herself is refusing to commit to the whole idea, even though it comes from her own commission.

Instead, gubernatorial press aide Christian Slater issued a statement saying his boss thanks members of her commission “for their steadfast efforts examining our prison system and commitment to improve it.” And he said Hobbs “looks forward to continued conversations with stakeholders to find the best path forward.”

In her January announcement forming the commission, the governor said she wanted the panel to look at everything from security and staffing levels to the ability of inmates to speak with family members. Hobbs also wanted information about inmate access to basic necessities like nutrition, medicines and sanitary products.

And she specifically stressed the need for review of access and quality of medical care and mental health programs. That came after U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver had declared the care provided by the state at prisons is “plainly grossly inadequate” and state officials were acting “with deliberate indifference” to the substantial risk of harm to inmates.

That ultimately resulted in a plan to add $117 million to the agency budget this year to respond to the court order, adding to a state budget that already is $400 million in the red.

Blackman said that addressed a specific symptom. But he said the panel believes all that needs to be looked at from the perspective of how to avoid such costs in the first place.

“If we bring the prison system to a spot where ... the recidivism is cut back, where we are able to have programming there that works so that these folks don’t reoffend, that means we can take more of that money that we are using in the prisons and can put it into K-12,” he said.

And the system does have a recidivism problem. The most recent report from the corrections department says that more than half of those who are behind bars have been there before.

Blackman said the ballooning health care costs also can be traced to the failure to address some issues up front. Consider, he said, the finding in the report that out of 46 men asked about meal service, 42 reported problems.

“In addition to reporting issues with portion sizes and quality of meals, many men reported that meal times were wildly inconsistent,” the report says.

Blackman said there is evidence that the health issues some inmates are having is due to the lack of nutritious food and the hours meals are being served.

“As a result of that, a lot more inmates are going to the infirmary because of health issues related to a bad diet,” he said.

“I’m not talking T-bone steaks and all that stuff,” Blackman said. “I’m talking nutrition, food that’s going to keep them healthy.”

Ortiz said there are indications that lawmakers, including those in the Republican Party who control the House and Senate, appear to be coming around to the idea that spending some money up front is more cost effective in the long run.

She cited legislation which requires the corrections department to help people get set up with an identification and get workforce training before they leave prison.

“That is a small step, but an important one,” Ortiz said,

“We are beginning to see bipartisan agreement on a lot of these reforms,” she continued. “Because when it comes down to it, people from all sides of the aisle are tired of spending $1.1 billion on a prison system that frankly has not worked.”

She said another indication of the recognition that money needs to be put into the system is that state lawmakers agreed to phase out the use of evaporative coolers in the prison system and upgrade aging air conditioning. Still, Ortiz said, she is hoping to convince colleagues to speed up the process coming on the wake of a brutal 2023 summer.

She also noted none of those required upgrades will apply to the private prisons where the state currently houses more than 10,000 inmates.