Governor creates commission to study prison problems in Arizona

Governor creates commission to study prison problems in Arizona

PHOENIX — Governor Katie Hobbs announced Wednesday the creation of a commission to study problems in Arizona’s prisons, including staffing levels and the medical care provided to those behind bars.

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

“We cannot deny that there is an urgent need to provide transparency and accountability in the Arizona prison system,” Hobbs said.

The commission will examine inmates’ access to food, medicine and health products; 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 challenged the quality of medical care behind bars, applauded the establishment of the commission.

He said previous governors took a hands-off approach to prisons. “They were disconnected and not involved,” Fathi said. “Gov. Hobbs seems to be charting a very different course.”

Last summer, a federal judge found that Arizona had violated the rights of people incarcerated in state prisons by providing them with inadequate medical care, and that state failures had led to preventable deaths.

Before trial in that case, US District Judge Roslyn Silver rejected a settlement because the state was not delivering on many of the prisoner care improvements it had promised to make. She concluded that $2.5 million in contempt of court penalties against the state did not motivate him to comply with the agreement.

In late 2021, then-director of prisons David Shinn testified that prisoners often have greater access to health services than people who are not locked up, prompting Silver to later say that the claim was “completely removed from reality”.

Commission members will include four state legislators, two people who previously served time in Arizona prisons, a doctor, a mental health professional 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 protocols, prompting Kris Mayes, the state’s new Democratic attorney general, to postpone seeking warrants to execute prisoners until the review is complete.

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

The review will examine, among other things, the state’s process for acquiring lethal injection drugs and lethal gas, execution procedures, news organizations’ access to executions, and the training of personnel to carry out executions.

Arizona currently has 110 inmates on death row. The state carried out three executions last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus sparked by criticism that a 2014 execution was botched and by difficulties obtaining drugs for lethal injection.

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