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AZ Governor Moves Swiftly to Reform Troubled Prisons

Months after a federal judge found Arizona's prison health care system and conditions of confinement unconstitutionally poor, the state's new governor, Democrat Katie Hobbs, announced an independent prisons oversight commission with a mandate far beyond the scope of the litigation, the Arizona Republic reports. 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 the department has struggled with, such as health care, security, conditions of facilities, access to nutrition and sanitary products, communication, grievances and staffing. 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."

Hobbs' order follows her appointment of a new prisons director, Ryan Thornell, previously the deputy commissioner of Maine's prison system. Thornell will take over next week. Hobbs said she was looking at options, including executive orders, that could allow for sentencing reform or reducing 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. The news also comes a week after Hobbs announced Arizona would pause executions pending a review of the process. The new oversight commissioners will be appointed by the governor and will include members of the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives. It will also include a representative of an "inmate advocacy organization," a member with a background in rehab programs for prisoners, two people formerly incarcerated, a member with medical and mental health experience, a family member of someone recently incarcerated and a representative of correctional workers. The commission has a Nov. 15 deadline for a preliminary report. 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."


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