This week, the Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan will formally retire leaving behind a department in turmoil. I spent 13 years in the Arizona prison system and I recently met with members of Gov. Ducey's staff to recommend some much-needed changes that should come with Ryan's departure.
My time in the Department of Corrections was before Perryville —the only women’s prison in Arizona —existed. I and other incarcerated women were housed in inhumane conditions in a hotel until we staged a sit-in and forced the opening of the Santa Maria Unit at Perryville.
There was nothing out in that desert but a brand new, not-quite-finished facility, and an opportunity.
Through dedication and hard work, a group of us managed to work with the Department of Corrections administrative staff to establish and build programs that kept many of us from ever returning to prison.
We fought to get jobs through prison industries by crawling through fields picking watermelons in 120-degree heat because we had to prove that women could take on tough jobs.
We fought for college classes. Some of us completed the courses twice so that we could meet the minimum enrollment number required to have continued access to education.
We formed several self-help organizations as well as music and art programs led and taught by people in prison.
We had an “Inmate Council” that effectively brought our concerns to administration and actually worked with them to come to mutual solutions to our problems.
There were even incarcerated people who led trainings for the Correctional Officers Training Academy (COTA) to help officers understand exactly what incarcerated people experience before, during, and after prison.
I have been out of prison for 28 years now and sadly much of what we fought to gain in the Department of Corrections has been lost. DOC has become more of a system that inflicts harsh punishment and less of a system that values rehabilitation.
Former prisons director Charles Ryan played a key role in this regressive change. But after years of scandal, he is finally out the door. There is now a window of opportunity for long overdue change within the Arizona Department of Corrections. I, along with other ACLU volunteers, staff, and attorneys, recently met with Governor Doug Ducey’s staff to provide some recommendations for what he should consider in his search.
1. The new director should understand that prison’s purpose is correction and rehabilitation, not punishment.
There is a deeply rooted culture of dehumanization within ADOC. A mindset permeates among prison staff that the purpose is punitive, not restorative. Transforming this culture will require a director who fundamentally believes in rehabilitation and second chances—not just in words, but in practice.
2. The new director should be dedicated to working with Gov. Ducey, the Legislature, and people like me to eliminate barriers to reentry.
Arizona has a high rate of people returning to prison just years, or even months, after they are released. The new director should commit to reducing the rate at which people return to prison by tackling the barriers people face when they are released. For example, one of the first barriers people face upon release is the harsh, dehumanizing comments made by correctional officers themselves. They bet upon when you'll return or tell you they'll keep a bed open for you. Those are not the words of encouragement you should hear as you walk out and head to a co-ed halfway house that's going to charge you rent on your first day before you've even had a chance to think about where you might find a job. You're unprepared to even apply for a job because no one has taught you how to fill out an application, what to wear, how to interview and especially how to answer the questions about the gaps in your employment history. And then there's a parole officer whose caseload is so overwhelming they have no time to offer you help when you might need it. And that is only the beginning.
These types of systemic barriers to smoothly transition back into society cannot be solved through Gov. Ducey’s Second Chance Centers alone. It is going to take a collaborative, intersectional approach between ADOC, the Legislature, and people who have direct experience facing these barriers.
3. The new director’s top priority should be improving the health and safety of all people in prison.
The new director will inherit a department that is currently in the middle of a major lawsuit over its failure to provide even basic medical care to people. The lawsuit is called Parsons v. Ryan and it revealed that under Director Ryan’s watch, people died and endured intense suffering due to a lack of adequate medical attention. The new director should pledge to bring solutions to this humanitarian crisis by working with the ACLU and the Prison Law Office to remedy the many areas of systemic failures that are leading to human rights abuses.
4. An ad hoc citizens' advisory and oversight board should be created following the framework proposed by Americans Friends Service Committee-Arizona.
For decades, AFSC-AZ has led efforts for prison reform at the state Capitol. They have now put forth a proposal to create a DOC citizens' oversight committee to restore trust in the Department of Corrections. We fully support this effort and urge the governor and the Legislature to consider this proposal.
When Ryan first announced his resignation, the ACLU of Arizona demanded a public search for a new director that incorporated the feedback and participation from key stakeholders, including those directly impacted by the prison system. Gov. Ducey did what we asked and invited our voices to the table, and we are going to make sure the conversation does not end here.