TOPICS > Politics

Ariz. Breaks Ground in Reforming Prison System

July 22, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The Arizona prison system is attempting to restructure its correction programs, in the aim of reducing repeat offenders. Jeffrey Brown reports on what these measures hope to achieve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marla Heisel, convicted of forgery, is serving her second stint in an Arizona state prison. But this time, she’s spending long days at work in a food preparation and catering program.

But what happened when you went out before?

MARLA HEISEL, Inmate: I left here with no skills, with nothing to look forward to, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you ended up back?

MARLA HEISEL: Because a lot of times people leave here with no money, no job skills, a $50 kick-out, and they go to halfway houses. When you leave here with a skill like this, it matters a lot. It matters a lot. I’m going to cry, but it does.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Desert Rose Cafe in the Perryville Women’s Prison 20 miles outside Phoenix is part of an experiment that Dora Schriro, director of Arizona’s Department of Corrections, calls a “parallel universe.”

DORA SCHRIRO, director, Arizona Department of Corrections: Part of what I learned working in prisons all these years is that prisons are run in so many ways completely opposite to the real world so we don’t ever prepare them to do anything except to be incarcerated.

We tell them when to get up, and when to go to chow, and what job they’re going to do. And we give them far too many opportunities to do nothing at all, to not go to school, to not get a GED, to not tackle their addiction issues. That’s all different in here.

Overcrowding is a big issue

JEFFREY BROWN: Schriro, who arrived in Arizona five years ago from the top prisons job in Missouri, is fighting an uphill battle against overcrowding. The state's prison population has skyrocketed, up 50 percent between 1995 and 2005 and growing.

And a big part of the problem is repeat offenders. A recent study showed that nearly half of Arizona's inmates return to prison within three years of being released.

State Representative Bill Konopnicki.

REP. BILL KONOPNICKI (R): If we don't make some changes, we're going to need to invest about $3 billion in just hardcore facilities to house these prisoners. And then 97 percent of them at some point are released, and we have had very few programs that actually let them re-enter successfully.

And so that's the perfect storm, the shortage on budget, shortage on beds, increased population, increased prison population, and no way to make that transition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Schriro thinks changing life inside prison can help with that eventual transition to the outside and reduce the number of repeat offenders. She's so far not asked for additional funding.

At Perryville, some women work long days as auto mechanics maintaining the prison's fleet of cars and trucks.

DORA SCHRIRO: He just wants to know that you have a basic understanding of the different kinds of memory modules.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's also a computer repair program and numerous computer classes. Like the catering training, these are collaborations with a local community college.

DORA SCHRIRO: By productively programming the population, they're out of their bunks, they're doing something with their day. It's not just doing stuff; it's not make-work. It's meaningful work.

JEFFREY BROWN: About an hour away, the medium- to high-security men's facility at Lewis sits amid an isolated desert landscape. Barbed wire and steel everywhere and the parallels to life outside are harder to see.

Inmates here are far more limited in their movements, as were we in observing them. And this can be a violent world.

Soon after Dora Schriro came to Arizona, Lewis was the site of one of the longest prison hostage standoffs in U.S. history. When violence does break out, offenders end up in the concrete solitary cells of the prison's lockdown unit. We had to put on flak jackets and goggles to enter.

TEACHER: How many times have you been out in society and, because you have tattoos, you're stereotyped? Every day?

Without programs, prisons form mold

JEFFREY BROWN: But at Lewis, too, there are new programs for inmates and talk of dramatic change.

RASHID ABDULLAH SAMAD, inmate: It's amazing the change in the attitudes and by us, us you see here, and there's more out there, that's the majority that's trying hard to make it work.

PRISON OFFICER: Thanks for coming up today. Thanks for all your efforts this week.

JEFFREY BROWN: At a monthly forum, this group of inmates meets with officers and other staff to talk out problems within the prison.

JIMMY MARTINEZ, inmate: The past 10 years, things weren't like this. Things have changed now. They have implemented these programs, and it has involved everybody, which now has changed the demeanor, the atmosphere out in the yard.

JEFFREY BROWN: Arthur Trejo is serving 22 years for assault and murder.

ARTHUR TREJO, Inmate: I'm going to be real honest. I used to be a knucklehead. This program has changed me. My boss can account for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: What's a knucklehead mean?

ARTHUR TREJO: A knucklehead, I used to be part of that group where, you know what, I was against staff. I was against change. I was against everything.

Because when I first came down in '96, you're programmed to be a robot. You're programmed to, you know what? It's us against them. Just do it, and that's how it's going to be.

Now, I look at it and it's like -- I came to this program. It's about responsibility. It's about accountability with one's self, not only on inmates, but on staff.

JEFFREY BROWN: The officers at the forum agreed.

LT. RANDY STANDRIDGE, corrections officer: Our philosophy had been -- it was described to me 12 years ago, our philosophy was to put your foot on the inmate's neck and step down real hard. And that's what we started out with. That's what it was like 10, 12 years ago.

OFFICER CHRISTINA DURAN, corrections officer: Especially after 10 years of training the old way, it's still difficult to find yourself reacting and responding the way you should be. So it's still a continual learning process for a lot of staff.

Creating a path for achievement

JEFFREY BROWN: Several of these men work in the recreation department, coordinating fitness programs, cross-conditioning, walking, even a popular yoga class. There's no weight training.

Their work here and in the forum represents a second part of Schriro's reforms, what she calls the Earned Incentive Program, where inmates can earn their way into vocational training, better visitation rights, and more.

Generally, a GED certificate or high school diploma is required, as well as good behavior.

DORA SCHRIRO: In the traditional system, what you get, as good as it's going to be, is how it is the first day you walk in. All we have left is the opportunity to take stuff away.

Through Earned Incentives, by doing the right things for the right reasons, whether or not anybody is looking, you can eventually not only reduce your custody level, but you can earn additional incentives, additional recognition for the civil and productive way in which you've been living your life. And that really energizes the population.

JEFFREY BROWN: Schriro cites statistics that show her system is also having an impact on recidivism rates.

DONNA HAMM, director, Middle Ground Prison Reform: She was mostly talking about a field investigation...

JEFFREY BROWN: One skeptic is Donna Hamm, a Phoenix-based prisoner advocate who's tangled often with the state system.

DONNA HAMM: It's aimed at people who probably would succeed and not recidivate in the first place. The people who need these programs, and the transition, and the counseling, and the treatment, and the attention are the people who are locked up and are unqualified to participate in her programs, because they're in maximum custody or, in some cases, medium custody or they're precluded because of their crime from participating or gaining any benefit from a program.

Initiative will take time, work

JEFFREY BROWN: Hamm also thinks Schriro's programs are masking more serious problems in the prison system.

DONNA HAMM: She's sprinkling pixie dust over problems that are inherent in the prison system and growing larger, the gang problems. There is just a proliferation of serious gang violence.

DORA SCHRIRO: Our initiative is a reformation of the entire system. And, again, the hard data says that what we are doing is evidence-based and it is working.

JEFFREY BROWN: Republican State Legislator Russell Pearce, a former sheriff who's pushed many tough law-and-order measures in the state, is a skeptic of a different sort, about how much any program can bring down the rates of repeat offenders.

REP. RUSSELL PEARCE (R): The purpose of prisons and jails is incarceration. So returning them to society in a better form is a byproduct. You do all you can, but it has to be a lifestyle change.

Not only do you need tools; you've got to be committed, because that world is tough. It's hard to be returned into a society you came from and ignore those friends that were old friends. It's hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, Arizona's program is receiving positive notice. Harvard's Kennedy School of Government recently named it among the most innovative state programs in the country. Schriro expects her plan to be fully implemented in all Arizona's prisons within the next two years.