Arizona corrections director says drugs getting into prisons, has plan for reform

Mar 30, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 12:20 pm

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

PHOENIX — Newly appointed Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry Director Ryan Thornell acknowledges drugs are getting into to prisons and being used by inmates.

“We also know there’s substance use within our facilities,” Thornell said. “That’s an issue in corrections that we’ve been battling for decades.”

Thornell calls drug use a concern, but wouldn’t classify it as rampant.

He stressed that it’s a problem correctional facilities face across the entire nation and that the state is not an exception.

Thornell came to Arizona from Maine, where he was deputy commissioner of corrections.

He says he has a plan to fix the troubled department.

“We know that the incarcerated population has a significantly high rate of drug use and drug addiction,” Thornell said.

“Any use creates a potential for safety and security concerns, and we need to make sure we’re taking steps to mitigate that through treatment and other safety security practices.”

Thornell attributes the drug use to high addiction rate among the inmate population.

He explains there are multiple ways drugs are making their way into prison facilities.

“They come through the mail, through different creative ways to send it in that way,” Thornell said.

“We know that it comes through visitation. Any point of entry to our facilities we know is a vulnerability.”

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs expressed concerns that staff could be smuggling drugs into prisons after learning a Maricopa County detention officer was arrested for allegedly trying to bring fentanyl and methamphetamine into a jail. Thornell said he is aware that is a concern.

“Yes, it’s a concern, but it’s not one that’s isolated to one facility, one location, it’s just something we know we need to address, and we owe it to staff to support them in a manner that addresses that safely and securely,” Thornell said.

Thornell believes there is a way to curb drugs use.

“If we have a treatment solution to some of these underlying issues it’s our responsible duty to implement that solution and hopefully reduce the number of those impacted by substance use disorder, but also reduce the amount of substance abuse in our facilities. That in turn creates a safter and more secure environment,” Thornell said.

When heading the Maine Department of Corrections, Thornell implemented the Medication Assisted Treatment program.

The program utilized medications used to treat opioid use disorders and other substance abuse disorders through a pass. The program included counseling and group treatment options, which Thornell said helped mitigate the impact of substance abuse disorder on an individual.

“We have a obligation to find a way to make that treatment available to them while they’re incarcerated in order to help them with release back into the community,” Thornell said.

He plans to implement a similar program on a smaller scale in Arizona prisons.

“I am planning on developing and implementing medication assisted treatment where it’s needed, which is going to be in most of the facilities for our very high-risk populations,” Thornell said.

Since assuming the role of director, Thornell said he’s been on-site running quality assurance checks on the protocols for entering and exiting the facilities.

“We don’t want to have lax procedures, so that’s something we’re prioritizing,” Thornell said.

Thornell added he’s had a conversation with Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone about the increased security measures his department is working to implement. He says they’re scheduled to meet in the coming weeks.

“We’re already implementing similar body scanners and other entry procedures that[Penzone] implemented in the Maricopa County Jail and that are considered the best practices around the country,” Thornell said.

“I’m interested in the lessons he learned locally here in his efforts.”

Drugs use isn’t the only challenge Thornell plans to take on.

Currently, the department is facing around a 25% vacancy rate. He stressed staffing is a challenge industries are facing across the nation, not just corrections.

“Anytime you place more burden, more stress, more workload on a staff member it just creates potential for safety and security issues,” Thornell said.

He said it’s critically important make sure the department has enough staff to run the facilities safely and securely, while also making sure staff have a level of wellness while working.

“We need to make sure our staffing numbers are strong,” Thornell said.

Thornell said staffing numbers have improved in the department since he took over, attributing it to targeted recruitment efforts already underway.

He has a plan to continue recruitment and retain employees.

“Without staff that feel valued and feel well at work, we’re vulnerable all over the state, so we need to make sure we prioritize them,” Thornell said.

Thornell believes that including staff in the conversation it will increase retention rates and create good policy.

A year from now, Thornell has a vision for the department. He hopes to see collaboration across the entire department, while being engaged with the community and stakeholders.

“There’s a lot of interest in our facilities to get out from under the scrutiny and do things differently,” Thornell said.

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Arizona corrections director says drugs getting into prisons, has plan for reform