The hard labor program is sound despite an attempted escape and shootout that left an inmate and his wife dead, lawmakers say.
ANNE T. DENOGEAN Citizen Staff Writer
Despite last week’s prison escape attempt in Florence, which left two people dead, Arizona will continue as the only state that works death row inmates outside the confine’s walls.
”This was one incident,” Sen. Ruth Solomon, D-Tucson, said of the attempted escape, which resulted in the deaths of inmate Floyd Bennett Thornton Jr., 36, and his wife, Rebecca Lynn Thornton, 38.
”There really haven’t been very many problems with (the program),” she said.
The botched escape attempt took place as the death-row inmate labored in the vegetable garden of the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence. When he saw he could not escape, he pleaded with his wife to shoot him. She did, killing him, and guards returned fire, killing her.
The Arizona Department of Corrections started the hard labor program in 1995 as part of a gettough package.
Under Arizona law, able-bodied prisoners must ”engage in hard labor for not less than forty hours per week.” That includes death row inmates, who often work outdoors.
Other states’ condemned inmates work within prison walls, generally limited to custodial or clerical jobs.
Solomon said Arizonans expect and want all inmates to work.
”The law is sound,” she said.
Even though prisoners are ”guests” of the state at the state’s behest, Arizonans believe inmates ”should do a little work for the lodging, the room, the board, the health care, (and) the education the state provides,” she said.
Doug Cole, chief spokesman for Gov. Fife Symington, said the governor believes death row inmates should continue to work outside because they can’t break up rocks or plant vegetables in their cell.
Most lawmakers content with prison policy
ANNE T. DENOGEAN Citizen Staff Writer
If there is a lesson in last week’s botched prison escape attempt, it is not that the state’s labor program for inmates doesn’t work, lawmakers say.
”I think the message is that anyone who tries to escape . . . is facing considerably high risk as to the extension of their lives, even with the openness of the area,” said Sen. George Cunningham, D-Tucson.
Killed in the escape attempt were death row inmate Floyd Bennett Thornton Jr., 36, and his wife, Rebecca Lynn Thornton, 38.
”It seemed to me that there was an adequate number of guards and the public was well-protected,” Cunningham said.
Glendale Republican John Kaites, head of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, said there is no move to change state law on prison labor.
”I’ve not talked to any senators that have expressed any concern with the program itself,” he said.
Kaites is awaiting a report from the Department of Corrections on the incident, but said his impression is that the situation was handled correctly and the public was adequately protected.
Rep. Tom Smith, R-Phoenix, who heads the Public Institutions and Universities Committee, said also he sees no need for any changes to the hard-labor program.
He said ”appropriate action” was taken in the Thornton escape attempt, and he is confident Arizona Corrections Director Terry Stewart will make changes if needed after the incident is reviewed.
”I think the prison system is well-run and well-supervised,” he added.
Rep. Herschella Horton, D-Tucson, said she isn’t sure whether changes to the law or DOC policies are needed in light of last week’s shootout.
”I truly don’t know how to answer that right now.”
The public wants inmates to work, she said.
She plans to talk to Stewart soon, curious as to ”how can you have them work, and still ensure the safety of both the inmates and the public?”
”The question is, how do you prevent this from ever happening again?” she said.
Rep. John Verkamp, R-Flagstaff, was the only lawmaker interviewed to question the wisdom of putting a crew of hardened criminals to work in a vegetable garden just yards from a chain-link fence that runs along a public road.
As a former Coconino County attorney, he put away some of the men on death row.
The escape attempt could have ended differently, and innocent people could have been hurt, he said.
Verkamp supports the hard-labor program, but said it has to be ”implemented in a reasonable, common-sense way.”
Last week’s incident ”is a good wake-up call that we have to take a look at some of these policies,” he said.
Camilla Strongin, a prison spokeswoman, said if the prisoners return to the vegetable field, changes will likely include a different kind of leg restraints and ”enhancements” to the chain-link and barbed-wire fence.
Floyd Thornton reportedly cut through his leather leg restraints with a razor blade.