New group aims to create citizen oversight board for corrections system




Photo by Matthew Hendley | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

A new organization hopes to convince the legislature and governor to create a citizen oversight board for the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections announced its formation on Monday, with aims to “restore trust in the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry” through the creation of a citizen oversight and advisory board, as well as an ombudsman, that will promote accountability and transparency at the agency. 

The push for citizen oversight over correctional systems has grown across the country in recent years. In Arizona, groups like the state chapter of the American Friends Service Committee have called for such reforms. But John Fabricius, the new organization’s executive director, said ATAC will focus solely on that issue.

“We’re completely complementary to all of the organizations that are out there. But we didn’t want oversight to be just another item on a platform or a place for an organization,” said Fabricius, who wrote a proposal for a corrections advisory and oversight board in Arizona last year. “We wanted this to be our single focus.”

Fabricius pointed to a host of problems at ADCRR, which has a $1.2 billion budget, as evidence of the need for a civilian oversight board. He noted that the department has been mired for years in litigation over inadequate health care inside Arizona’s prisons. There have also been problems with infrastructure, most notably faulty locks at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis. Fabricius said there have been problems with fire safety, budgeting and staff morale, as well.

“This is not how state government should be run,” he said.

Fabricius envisions a citizen oversight committee that would be attached to the legislature, while the ombudsman for the correctional system would be autonomous but tied to the governor’s office.

The issue of citizen oversight in corrections has become more bipartisan in recent years. Reps. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, and Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, both sponsored legislation last year that would create citizen oversight boards for ADCRR. Neither lawmakers’ bills received hearings in committee. An ad hoc committee on sentencing reform that Blackman chaired also recommended citizen oversight for corrections. 

Fabricius is more optimistic about the upcoming legislative session. Though he emphasized that the issue isn’t party-specific, he said the Nov. 3 election could shake things up at the legislature. And whatever happens in the election, the House and Senate judiciary committee chairmen who frequently blocked criminal justice reform legislation — Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix, and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert — won’t be there next year. 

The legislation by Blackman and Rodriguez, both of whom have been vocal advocates for criminal justice reform at the Capitol, died in the House Public Safety Committee, not Judiciary.

Blackman said he isn’t familiar with ATAC, but heard about the group’s formation and looks forward to working with it next session. He plans to re-run his corrections oversight bill, along with another criminal justice reform bill he sponsored, and is hopeful that it will have enough support to pass.

Blackman said the oversight board’s recommendations should be just that — non-binding recommendations. He said he doesn’t want the committee to look over the corrections director’s shoulder and tell him or her exactly what to do. 

“Now, if they don’t fix these things and they have these recommendations, then that’s when the House and Senate should get involved and make legislation to enforce some of these recommendations,” he said.

Among the problems that Blackman said he’d like to see addressed in the correctional system is a lack of access to substance abuse treatment programs — more than 75% of inmates have substance abuse issues, but only about 4% receive treatment while behind bars — and lack of access to educational programs.

ADCRR declined to comment on ATAC or its push for citizen oversight at the agency.

“The Department does not discuss publicly the lobbying efforts of third parties at the Legislature,” agency spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said.

ATAC is led by numerous people who have experience dealing with the correctional system. Fabricius and Sue Braga, the group’s government affairs director, have both served time in Arizona’s prison system. The group’s community relations director, Charlene Schwickrath, and its policy and data research director, Deb North, both have loved ones who are currently incarcerated in Arizona.