Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs speaks on prison priority, problems and plans for reform

Mar 29, 2023, 4:35 AM

This is the second part in a series evaluating Arizona’s prison system, drug use and plans for reform. Read part one here.

PHOENIX — Katie Hobbs has put the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry in her crosshairs since becoming governor in January.

In an exclusive interview with KTAR News, Hobbs spoke on why she has made state prisons a priority, problems she’s encountered and plans for reforming the system.

Here’s what Hobbs had to say, with some answers edited for clarity:

Q: You say corrections is at the top of mind for you. Can you give me some specifics as to why that is?

A: If you look at the state budget, it is one of the largest expenses and there’s just been so much news about practices that don’t treat prisoners humanely that are costing more dollars than they should. Health care and the lawsuit we are embroiled in is one example of that, but even just the idea of private prisons and the guaranteed occupancy rates in their contracts are not the most advantageous to taxpayers of Arizona. [Neither are] practices like the high cost of just inmates being able to communicate with their family members, which is such an important lifeline to keep them connected when they’re released.

The inmate labor practices have been called into question. The practices of requiring pregnant prisoners to be induced into labor, that’s just really inhumane. The lack of access to feminine hygiene products, which was recently highlighted. So, there’s just a broad array of things that we need to look at to ensure that we are treating prisoners in our care in a humane way and efficiently using taxpayer dollars in this really expensive system.

Q: You mention the lawsuit the state is embroiled in. Within that lawsuit, Judge Roslyn Silver found that the state was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners and the crux of it was staffing. In the remedial order, Silver said staffing needs to be upped. Are you aware of a lack of staffing within the prisons?

A: I think in particular, as it relates to this lawsuit, one of the ways our hands are really tied is that statute requires for health care in the state prisons to be provided by a contractor. We can’t provide it directly and so a lot of the problem is holding the contractors accountable and I don’t think a lot has been done. We need to step up there and make sure that these contractors are delivering the services that they’re required to. If the judge says it’s not adequate, then we make sure that it is.

So if that means we need to find ways to supplement the health care services with our own staffing, we’re going to do whatever it takes. I think in large part, this is not a new lawsuit and this ruling comes after a long process of trying to fix this and it largely being ignored by the previous administration.

Q: Is there anywhere else, aside from the lawsuit, where there are staffing shortages within prisons?

A: Well, I’m sure the staffing across the board in the corrections system has been, recruiting people is difficult, but workforce shortages are a problem everywhere not just in corrections and so this is I think something that the oversight committee will be able to look at. Are we at recommended levels of staffing in different areas and make sure we have the resources to get where we need to be to keep both the inmates and the staff safe.

Q: Within your executive order, specifically the one creating the independent oversight commission, you mention transparency in the first line and then when you hit the second line, it says preventing misconduct. Why did you choose to put the word misconduct in the executive order?

A: I think there’s been recent reports, not necessarily on the state side, but at the county there was a recent arrest of an officer who was trying to smuggle drugs into a county facility. I don’t think that’s an isolated incident. I think that when you have lower staffing levels that are maybe recommended or lack of oversight, that makes things ripe for that type of misconduct and really exploiting a population that there’s not really a lot of sympathy for, so we just want to make sure that we’re not leaving the system open to that kind of activity.

Q: Are you aware of any misconduct that at the jails that we’ve seen at the county level?

A: Not specifically, but I think the idea of drugs being smuggled into correctional facilities is not new and I’m not aware of anything specific, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find something like that.

Q: Is there anything else you learned after becoming governor that made you put prisons at the forefront?

A: No surprises, just the fact that there has been so much widespread reporting about different issues and really not a lot of attention or attempts to try and correct those things.

Q: Are you aware of overdoses going on in the prisons and the use of Narcan in the prisons?

A: I have not been made aware of that, but I think this is why transparency is so important because it sounds like a lot of stuff has happened that has maybe been tried to be covered up and I want to make sure that our administration, whether it’s the DOC or any other department, is operating in a way that is transparent and accountable to the public, the public taxpayers who pay their salaries and who they’re supposed to serve and we’re going to operate in that way.

So, I am glad that there has been public records requests that get this kind of information out there so that we can address these issues.

Q: What would you like to see change? What is your overall goal for corrections?

A: I think the culture shift is that it is going to be really critical and this is an agency that I think, in all honesty, the previous administration just kind of did not want to deal with and was happy to let the director do whatever they wanted and not really address the root of these problems.

I think that it goes down to not necessarily being focused on treating prisoners humanely and just changing the name to the Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry doesn’t change the culture. We can’t keep people locked up forever. We have to focus on how we rehabilitate them and how we get them back into communities and reduce recidivism or what are we doing and that’s going to take a big culture shift to do that.

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Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs speaks on prison priority, problems and plans for reform