Arizona

The governor sets up a commission to investigate prison problems in Arizona

PHOENIX (AP) – Gov. Katie Hobbs on Wednesday announced the creation of a commission to investigate issues in Arizona’s prisons, including staffing levels and health care offered to those behind bars.

The commission’s appointment by Hobbs, Arizona’s first Democratic governor since 2009, came days after she ordered a separate review of the state’s death penalty records.

“We cannot deny the urgent need to create transparency and accountability in Arizona’s corrections system,” Hobbs said.

The commission will examine detainees’ access to food, medicine and hygiene items; whether prison staffing levels are adequate; prison conditions, including security measures and whether they are overcrowded; rehabilitation and education programs for prisoners; and access to medical and mental health care and drug treatment programs.

David Fathi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Arizona prisoners who have questioned the quality of health care behind bars, welcomed the commission’s establishment.

He said previous governors have taken a calm approach to prisons. “They were detached and uninvolved,” Fathi said. “Reg. Hobbs seems to be taking a very different course.”

Last summer, a federal judge concluded that Arizona had violated the rights of inmates in state prisons by providing them with inadequate health care — and that the state’s failures had resulted in preventable deaths.

Before the trial in that case, US District Judge Roslyn Silver threw out a settlement because the state had failed to implement many of the promised improvements in prisoner care. She concluded that $2.5 million in contempt for state court penalties did not motivate him to comply with the settlement.

In late 2021, then-Principal Director David Shinn testified that prisoners often had better access to health services than people who are not incarcerated, leading Silver to later testify that the claim was “completely detached from reality”.

The commission’s members include four state legislators, two people who have previously served time in Arizona prisons, a doctor, a psychiatrist, and a family member of someone who served at least three years in Arizona prisons.

Last week, Hobbs ordered a review of Arizona’s execution records, prompting Kris Mayes, the state’s new Democratic attorney general, to wait until the investigation is complete to obtain court orders to execute prisoners.

The review was announced just days after the governor appointed Ryan Thornell, a Maine prison official, as the new director of Arizona’s correctional facilities.

The review will examine, among other things, the government’s procurement process for lethal injectable drugs and lethal gas, execution procedures, news organizations’ access to executions, and the training of personnel 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 caused by criticism that a 2014 execution had been botched and difficulties in obtaining lethal injectable drugs.

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