Arizona Prison Officials Ready To Carry Out Executions While Legislators Question Agency Operations

Friday’s announcement that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) is prepared to perform its role in carrying out death penalty sentences comes as state legislators are proposing the creation of an independent oversight office for the beleaguered agency.

The last execution in Arizona was in 2014 when Joseph R. Wood was put to death for the 1989 murders of two people. Since then, ADCRR has had difficulties obtaining the necessary drugs to implement lethal injection executions and there have been problems ensuring the formula can be processed in compliance with state law.

Last year Gov. Doug Ducey put pressure on ADCRR Director David Shinn to address the drug issue so executions can resume. That has now been done, Shinn advised Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich in a March 5 letter.

“ADCRR stands ready, with the AG’s Office, to administer justice according to A.R.S. § 13-757(A),” Shinn’s letter states.

There are currently 115 ADCRR inmates on death row; all but three are men. Several of the prisoners have received a final affirmation of their sentences from the Arizona Supreme Court, something that is required before the attorney general can request a death warrant.

But whether Shinn’s agency has the confidence of state officials and of the public is another question right now.
Shinn took over the agency in October 2019 following the resignation of Charles Ryan. It was under Ryan’s 10-year leadership that hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the State by inmates as well as employees.

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Despite Shinn’s experience in correctional operations, some see ADCRR as an agency that takes one step forward and two step back. Shinn’s supporters point COVID-19 hitting just months into his tenure as one reason changes are taking longer than expected, while Shinn’s detractors question why there is still so much secrecy about how the mammoth agency operates.

It is those management and operational challenges that captured the attention this year of several legislators, including Rep. Walt Blackman (R-LD6), the chairman of the Criminal Justice Reform Committee. Taxpayers spend $1.3 billion per year on prison operations, and Blackman said Friday he believes it is time for better transparency and accountability.

“Enough is enough,” said Blackman. “Every day seems to bring a new scandal or crisis, and the only reason we learn about them is because whistleblowers go to the media.”

Blackman introduced HB2167 which would create an independent ombudsman’s office responsible for oversight of ADCRR. The bill has already cleared the House and is now awaiting consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Appropriation Committee.

According to Blackman, the state was recently fined more than $1 million after a federal judge ruled ADCRR ignored multiple court orders to improve inmate health care. The judge has indicated Arizona could be on the hook for up to another $17 million in fines if ADCRR does not improve its health care system.

It is the second large fine imposed on ADCRR in the case since 2018, and according to Blackman the health care lawsuit alone has cost Arizona taxpayers nearly $10 million in attorney’s fees.

“ADCRR is a bureaucracy run amok,” Blackman said, adding that the issue “is not about bad leadership” or a few bad apples. “The only way to stop and prevent the problems in our prisons is to create permanent, independent, professional prison oversight. Doing nothing will get more of the same results, waste millions, and jeopardize public safety.”

If HB2167 passes into law it would grant the ombudsman’s office the power to inspect prisons, investigate and help resolve reoccurring complaints, speak confidentially with staff and inmates, issue public reports and data on its findings, and recommend improvements.

Aside from the health care issue, Blackman has pointed to a number of problems which have recently come to light with ADCRR, including the prosecution of a former prison supervisor for sexually assaulting staff members, a lawsuit by Jewish prisoners in a dispute about Kosher food service, and the recent escape of two violent inmates.

There is also the issue of a new $24 million database created for ADCRR which reportedly cannot correctly calculate inmate release dates, Blackman says.