The Arizona Republic
Hobbs to inherit prison system woes
Security, infrastructure, staffing, health care and other problems await her
In her recent victory speech, Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs pledged to work together with Arizonans to “tackle our biggest challenges.”
While Hobbs did not single out Arizona’s prison system, she could be hard pressed to find a state agency facing more challenges and drawing so many resources from the public coffers than the Arizona Department of Corrections.
As the prison population continues to decline, and long-neglected infrastructure crumbles, the DOC budget continues to increase. It now stands at more than $1.5 billion annually. Lawsuits over unconstitutional conditions have cost taxpayers tens of millions more.
The men and women who live and work within state prisons are routinely subjected to disease, violence, inhumane conditions, and untimely death. In recent years, prisoners have escaped, suicides among prisoners have reached record highs, and record low staffing numbers have some facilities operating on the brink of collapse.
While many of the challenges facing the department have existed for decades and plague other state prison systems, critics of the Arizona Department of Corrections point to its leader, Director David Shinn, for failing to make any progress in reforming the agency since he was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey more than three years ago.
Ducey brought in Shinn as a changemaker, but he was widely seen as a merely a caretaker.
State Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, who was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee from 2020 to 2022, said he initially gave Shinn the benefit of the doubt.
“I wanted him to be able to lay down a plan, and then give him time to implement it,” Blackman said of Shinn. “I actually suggested he should not take the position until he could do a comprehensive review of the department. But, he didn’t do that.”
Blackman said Shinn’s failure to take stock of the agency’s serious challenges left him unprepared to make changes. Three years later, Blackman said Shinn doesn’t have many accomplishments to point to.
“The work that was done was superficial and didn’t really get to some of the main issues that are plaguing that department,” Blackman said. “So I think it’s probably time for a new person in there.”
It’s typical for governors to appoint new department heads when they take office. While Hobbs has not indicated that a new DOC director is imminent, campaign spokesperson Joe Wolf called the Department of Corrections an “endless source of controversy” that needs reform.
“The Hobbs Administration will work with stakeholders and experts to investigate those issues, implement policy to ensure tax dollars are not wasted and ensure that public safety is prioritized,” Wolf said. “The Department of Corrections and its need for steady leadership is on our radar and our administration will be looking at all options on the table to bring that to the department.”
Ducey appointed Shinn in 2019, replacing former Director Charles Ryan, who announced his retirement shortly after whistleblower Corrections Officer Gabriela Contreras leaked surveillance video to the media showing that prison doors did not lock properly at the state prison in Lewis, allowing prisoners to assault staff and one another.
At the time, Shinn had Ducey’s full confidence. “Our goal was to identify a leader with extensive experience in the corrections field, a record of solving problems and getting results, and a passion for public service,” Ducey said in a statement at the time. “David Shinn is that leader.”
The department states its mission as “providing safer communities by implementing court-imposed sentences and removing those who victimize our citizens to appropriately secured environments.” In its five-year plan, the department says it is committed to “facilitating structured programming designed to develop inmates’ personal responsibility for their successful reintegration to the community through rehabilitative opportunities for change.
The department claims it provides effective supervision when prisoners return to society, “designed to result in improved reentry outcomes which reduce recidivism.”
The Governor’s Office declined to comment on Shinn’s performance, and did not respond to questions regarding whether he had made any progress in rehabilitating incarcerated people or helping them return successfully to society.
An attorney for the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, a correctional officer union, also declined to comment on Shinn’s tenure or the prospect of a new director.
Shinn did not respond to questions about his performance at the agency. The Department of Corrections communications team declined to respond to questions also, other than to say “ADCRR is proud of the tremendous work our officers and professional staff do each day to keep our communities safe.”
Mired in legal challenges
Two years after his appointment as Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, David Shinn found himself testifying in a federal court in defense of the state agency.
When he took over, Shinn inherited an ongoing prison health care settlement and became the new main named defendant in the underlying lawsuit.
In 2012, the federal court recognized a group of people in Arizona prisons who claimed their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment were being violated. The class-action lawsuit was then named Parsons v. Ryan, after named plaintiff Victor Parsons and then-director Charles Ryan. Arizona agreed to settle the case in 2014 and it was approved by a judge the next year.
But since that time, the federal courts overseeing the settlement have ruled the state was not living up to the terms of the settlement agreement. Federal judges have twice held the department in contempt, including
a $1.1 million fine during Shinn’s tenure in 2021.
The case has outlasted judges, named plaintiffs and prison administrators. It is now known as Jensen v. Shinn.
In July 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver took the drastic measure of rescinding the settlement and ordering a bench trial, which began on Nov. 1.
At trial, Shinn testified that running the Arizona prison system was “by far one of the most challenging assignments I have ever had” in a professional career that began as a corrections officer in 1991, and included serving as an auditor in the Bureau of Prisons as well as a warden of a federal prison. But Shinn said he had a “tremendous willingness to achieve success and make the lives of the men and women in our custody better.”
David Fathi, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, has litigated the Parsons case for a decade, and frequently visits Arizona prisons.
He said while conditions were bad under former director Ryan, he’s seen no meaningful changes during Shinn’s tenure.
“We continue to run up against this blank wall of denial and obstruction, and a lack of any interest in working collaboratively to actually fix the system,” Fathi said. “When the system is this dysfunctional, it’s typical for the director to acknowledge that there are problems, he may play down their seriousness, he may claim they’re already being remedied, but he doesn’t deny that they exist.”
No so with Shinn. Fathi, who cross-examined Shinn at the Parsons trial, says the director’s own testimony showed he either fails or refuses to accept the dangerous state of health care in state prisons.
Despite years of failing to live up to court ordered standards, repeated court sanctions totaling millions of dollars, and weeks of testimony from prisoners to the contrary, Shinn told the court he thought highly the Arizona prison health care system.
“They often have greater access to care than I do as a private citizen,” he said of the people incarcerated in Arizona state prisons.
“It’s just inconceivable that anyone who’s been paying any attention to this case, could actually believe that,” Fathi said.
Silver called Shinn’s testimony “shocking.”
In a scathing ruling that found the health care system and conditions of confinement unconstitutional, Silver repeatedly condemned Shinn and his leadership.
“The claim that prisoners’ access to care ‘exceeds’ the access to care enjoyed by people in the community is completely detached from reality,” Silver wrote. “Given the overwhelming evidence and repeated instances of insufficient care leading to suffering and death, defendant Shinn could not possibly believe prisoners have the same access to care as people in the community.”
Silver called Shinn’s testimony “a blatant admission of his flagrant dereliction of responsibilities as the director of the Arizona prison system.”
Away from the Parsons case, Shinn created entirely new legal problems through a series of policy changes.
The Department of Corrections violated the law and its own policies by denying The Republic access to serve as a media witness for executions, and for failing to allow other witnesses who were granted access to see the entirety of the execution, according to a demand letter from The Republic sent in May 2022.
In January 2022, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a man incarcerated in an Arizona prison who claimed the Department of Corrections media policy, updated under Shinn, discriminates against Black artists.
Another incarcerated man was successful in a complaint against the Arizona Department of Corrections filed in 2021, saying the agency was wrongly interpreting state law, potentially denying people incarcerated in state prisons the opportunity to earn time off their sentences.
Shinn’s corrections department also came under fire for spending more than $24 million on a flawed computer system that was unable to calculate updates to sentencing laws, again keeping people in prison for longer than necessary.
Jewish inmates sued after Shinn switched from a kosher meal to a “plant-based common fare meal” in August 2020 at all state-run prisons.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the Arizona Department of Corrections is violating the First Amendment by stopping issues of The Nation magazine from reaching incarcerated subscribers, according to a demand letter sent to prison officials in July 2022.
Security risks and infrastructure problems
Security issues have plagued the Department of Corrections under Shinn’s leadership.
Two incarcerated men escaped from the state prison in Florence in January, and remained on the loose for nearly five days. Records show the prison was understaffed at the time of the escapes.
Staffing has been a continuing problem during
When he was appointed in the fall of 2019, there were 1,136 corrections officer vacancies. In March 2020, Shinn told the state legislature “COVID-19 could actually not have been a better recruiting tool for us, than right now. We have no problem hiring folks.”
Two years later, in July 2022, Shinn reported to state lawmakers that the number of officer vacancies had increased by 66% under his leadership, to 1,891.
According to the Department of Corrections, as of Dec. 2, vacancies increased again, to 1,931.
Chronically low staffing was one of the issues cited by whistleblowers who told The Republic in August that the Lewis prison was “on the brink of collapse.”
The officers said they came forward because they wanted the public to know about how conditions at the prison are leading to an unsafe working environment that is causing their colleagues to quit and contributing to deaths of prisoners.
A prisoner at Lewis state prison in Buckeye alleged in a civil trial in September that the warden had ordered “inmate-on-inmate discipline” resulting in hundreds of beatings.
Prisoners and corrections officials testified at the trial that lock issues remain unsolved, despite millions spent on replacement systems, and incarcerated people are still able to leave their cells as often as they please.
Reports conducted by DOC and the Arizona Department of Health Services in 2020 documented rampant pest infestation, broken equipment, and frequent use of expired food in state prison kitchens.
Dangerous and unsanitary conditions in the prisons under Shinn’s watch have led to a riot and a hunger strike.
William Jordan, incarcerated at the state prison in Douglas, says conditions have worsened during Shinn’s tenure. Jordan said Shinn implemented new security restrictions that resulted in prisoners, including him, being consistently locked down for 22 hours a day.
“Staff members from the bottom to the top (central office) have NO form of accountability and have no regard for policy,” Jordan said. “Shinn basically has no knowledge of the inner workings of the prisons he is in charge of. The information he receives from wardens and deputy wardens who want him to think that everything is running smoothly.”
Shinn’s critics say his poor leadership only exacerbated systemic problems during an already challenging time.
Arizona prisons faced unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But Shinn’s decisions early on were criticized by prisoners and employees alike.
In April of 2020, with not cases yet confirmed, Shinn told lawmakers he believed Arizona prisons were some of the safest places to live.
Two years later, the Department had recorded more than 70 prisoner deaths from COVID, nearly 15,000 infections among incarcerated people, and more than 5,000 staff members self-reported COVID infections.
Despite recommendations to reduce prison populations to prevent the spread of COVID, Governor Ducey and Director Shinn refused to release prisoners from state custody.
After backtracking on an initial mask ban, Shinn mandated mask wearing by staff, while failing to provide masks for prisoners. The department used prisoner labor to make masks for staff, but most did not have access to masks for their own protection.
While most prisoner work programs were suspended during the pandemic, Shinn implemented a plan to house 140 female prisoners on site at the Hickman’s Egg Ranch. Incarcerated women said they were forced to forgo GED classes and other programs to work during the pandemic at the ranch.
The director came under fire again in July after saying Arizona communities would “collapse” without cheap prison labor during testimony at the state legislature. An investigation by The Republic found Arizona Correctional Industries, a state-run company that sells prison labor and prison-made products, makes millions of dollars in profits annually while failing to deliver on promises of skills-training and rehabilitation.
Shinn drastically altered department media policies upon taking office, stopping press phone interviews with prisoners, and prohibiting staff from speaking the media. Shinn did not hold a press conference during his tenure and declined repeated requests from The Republic for in-person or phone interviews.
Shinn did, however, occasionally provide interviews to KTAR radio programs.
John Fabricius, executive director of Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections, said a new director is necessary to reestablish competent and secure operations in the prisons.
“It’s a broken system, and we are continuing to push money down there.”
State Rep. Walt Blackman
Former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee
“The director has near unilateral control over DOC,” Fabricius said. “And as we’ve seen with the Ryan and Shinn administrations, the level of dysfunction inside DOC has manifested in a continued threat to the safety of the human beings who are incarcerated in DOC and the staff who work there.”
Fabricius said Shinn has used his power to shut down any attempts at transparency.
Walt Blackman echoed that sentiment, saying the Shinn and Ducey administrations had pushed back on his efforts to establish in state law an independent oversight committee for the Department of Corrections.
Blackman, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress this year, says he hopes another lawmaker will pick the oversight legislation back up in the coming session.
“We are dumping billions of dollars into a system that is not checked. There’s no checks and balances. There’s no transparency. It’s a broken system, and we are continuing to push money
down there,” Blackman said. “The oversight legislation would have gotten our hands around the problem.”
Blackman said he hopes the Hobbs transition team will take a holistic approach to reforming the department.
“To really turn that system around, you have to do more than just get a new
director. Because they’ll face the same things as Shinn,” Blackman said. “So the new administration has to give the new director flexibility to really clean house and run a comprehensive review of that prison system.”
Fabricius says the department needs independent oversight regardless of who runs it.
“We should never trust an agency to monitor themselves because there is always an inherent conflict of interests,” Fabricius said.
Molly Gill, Vice President of Policy at FAMM, a nonpartisan, nonprofit sentencing reform organization in Washington, D.C, agreed that new leadership would not solve everything.
“I think independent oversight will allow for a constant eye on this troubled system, and hopefully come up with some solutions to fix things like the understaffing and the overcrowding and the infrastructure problems,” Gill said. “It’s not just about addressing poor leadership, it’s about addressing past problems, but also preventing future problems.”