Arizona shouldn’t shackle itself to new interim Department of Corrections chief
Arizona’s new interim prisons chief likes chain gangs and was top deputy to a state corrections director associated with Abu Ghraib and crimes against women inmates.
So, no, Charles L. Ryan isn’t exactly Dora Schriro.
Schriro, the first woman to head Arizona’s Department of Corrections, has left the state to work for Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano, our former governor.
Like anyone running prisons, Schriro has detractors. But her focus on inmate rehabilitation and common-sense approach to management and reforms won her acclaim and reduced assaults and recidivism.
In choosing Ryan to replace her, for the nonce anyway, new Gov. Jan Brewer has – unwittingly, one hopes – unleashed panic among human rights devotees and other observers.
The American Friends Service Committee, for example, already has formally opposed Ryan’s appointment.
Could his arrival herald the return of Terry Stewart? That’s the fear, and Brewer so far has done nothing to dispel it.
Stewart’s tenure as DOC director was wracked by violence and controversy.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued him in 1997 after an 18-month investigation, charging that at least 14 women prisoners were repeatedly raped, sodomized and otherwise sexually assaulted and observed by corrections workers as they dressed, showered and used the bathroom.
Prison officials refused to let investigators talk with staff and inmates about the complaints, the suit said.
Despite a report finding “an unconstitutional pattern of practice of sexual misconduct,” the lawsuit was dropped after Arizona agreed to more stringently oversee employees who work with female inmates.
In another case, a corrections officer was stabbed to death March 7, 1997, in the San Juan Unit of the Perryville prison in Goodyear.
But while such cases were to have spurred major reforms, later events showed that Stewart never implemented the fixes ordered.
Stewart did accelerate privatization of state prisons, which has increased costs while reducing state control. And he pushed unsuccessfully to build a prison exclusively for Mexican nationals, to be run by a private firm.
Stewart resigned from the Department of Corrections in November 2002 after nearly seven years, but he soon was back in the spotlight.
In 2003, he was tapped by the State Department to oversee development of prisons in Iraq.
By 2004, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was asking the Department of Justice to investigate Stewart’s involvement in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, citing his “shocking record of tolerating prisoner abuse” in Arizona.
Back in Arizona, on Jan. 18, 2004, two felons overpowered an officer at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis. One donned the officer’s uniform, bluffed his way into the tower and took two hostages, the start of a 15-day siege that led to charges of sexual assault and kidnapping by inmates.
Although Stewart was long gone by then, he called top Senate Republicans – including now Senate President Bob Burns – to “express concerns.”
But an ensuing investigation showed that Stewart never had implemented reforms ordered years earlier to make state prisons safer.
“I apologized to the director (Schriro) for the agency she inherited,” longtime Deputy Director Gary Phelps testified in a hearing at the time.
By all indications, interim Director Ryan now takes control of a greatly improved prison system.
If Arizona is to maintain and perhaps even accelerate those enhancements, Stewart cannot be brought back to the helm.
And Ryan should be allowed to serve only temporarily, until a professional director is found.
In the 2002 book “History, Memory, and the Law” by Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns, Ryan goes on at great length to defend use of chain gangs, insisting modern restraints are so gentle, “you could walk around like that all day long.”
“For the Department of Corrections,” the authors note, “the simple desire to get lazy troublemakers to work necessitates the amiable bondage of chain.”
Besides serving as Stewart’s right-hand man in Arizona, Ryan also worked in Iraq in 2004 as the Coalition Provisional Authority’s deputy prisons director.
Neither U.S. prisons established in Iraq nor the Arizona prisons system under Stewart and Ryan are anything to brag about.
If Brewer wants to keep Arizona prisons fairly functional, she needs to tap a good leader for the Department of Corrections. And that most assuredly excludes Ryan and Stewart.