Dora's Darlings

Prisoners are precious to Dora Schriro, Arizona's new corrections chief

Dora Schriro lives in a parallel universe, a place where teenage thugs sit on Santa's lap and Girl Scouts visit penitentiaries. In Schriro's world, parolees are called "clients," not criminals. It's a land of jailhouse picnics, where inmates raise money for charity -- when they're not busy doing arts and crafts.

That's not a fantasy, it's reality in the places where Schriro, whose career in corrections spans three decades, has worked. And her spaceship has landed in Arizona, where Schriro was confirmed last week as director of the state's Department of Corrections.

Schriro promises to repair a dysfunctional, overcrowded prison system in a law-and-order state with the highest incarceration rate in the West. Her critics call her naive, a criminal coddler who thinks she can fix felons and turn them into productive citizens. Her fans call her a progressive, someone who sees the folly in throw-away-the-key and isn't afraid to stand up to the old school.

In announcing Schriro's appointment last year, Governor Janet Napolitano said the prison system is in crisis and needs an overhaul. "Dora Schriro is one of America's leading minds on modern, effective prison management," the governor said.

A strange statement coming from Napolitano, who allies herself with the likes of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and clearly enjoys a tough-on-crime reputation that dates back to her days as Arizona's U.S. Attorney.

As a licensed social worker who's never worn a guard's uniform or worked a cellblock wondering whether she'll go home in one piece, Schriro approaches prison from an academic perspective instead of from the trenches. She sounds like a liberal, but she's accustomed to swimming in conservative waters. She's run state prisons in Missouri, where she oversaw more than 40 executions -- even though there's ample evidence to suggest she may not entirely support the death penalty. Before coming to Arizona, she was a finalist for top corrections posts in Idaho and Texas.

During her 11 months on the job, Schriro has wasted no time introducing her parallel universe. She's selling ice cream sandwiches to prisoners, with profits going to victims' groups. She's overhauled a salary system so archaic that some employees were getting pay reductions when they were promoted. She's tapping community colleges to improve education programs. She wants alternatives to prison for criminals who violate terms of probation or parole.

With a penchant for fashionable high heels and frequent hairdo changes, Dora Schriro comes off as more Betty Crocker than Brubaker in photographs adorning the department's newsletter. At 54, she's a brainiac with a master's degree in psychology, a doctorate in education and a law-school diploma, smart enough to survive long-term at the top levels of government where mavericks rarely thrive.

Schriro obviously doesn't like anyone looking over her shoulder. During the January prison hostage standoff at the Lewis Prison, she demanded, and got, a near blackout on release of information by the media, saying that publicizing even the names of inmates and guards would invite catastrophe. Afterward, she still refused to release such basic information as guards' names. Napolitano's staff fed reporters ridiculous excuses, such as a rape-shield statute, that clearly didn't apply to public records requests. Schriro wouldn't budge, despite her legal obligations. "I know the law is not on my side," she told the Arizona Republicwhen the newspaper pressed her to disclose documents. The department has also fought the release of a grand jury report on the standoff, which exposed huge shortfalls in prison security.

Schriro does fine speaking to lawmakers and college criminology classes, but she doesn't look entirely comfortable faced with a reporter as she sits in her office a few days before the Senate confirms her. One month after New Times first asked to speak with her, she's finally granted an interview -- after asking to see the questions in advance. While her hand gestures flow, you notice an indentation on her thumb where her forefinger has dug in. It's 7:15 a.m., and she's sipping a Diet Pepsi.

"I got your questions," she begins. "If it's all right with you, I'd like to kind of rearrange them." She launches a half-hour summary of her reform plans, none of it surprising to anyone who's looked at the department's Web site or listened to her pitch legislators. Her enthusiasm is obvious.

"For me, corrections, it's important work, it's rewarding work," she says. "And it's fundamentally optimistic work."

Most of the questions remain unanswered after she finishes this rehearsal of opening remarks she'll give to the Senate confirmation committee. There isn't much time left to talk about her past, her personal life or the recent prison hostage crisis that put her administration on the hot seat -- she's running behind schedule and suits are waiting in the foyer.

What kind of story are you doing, she asks, and why?

She's told that she runs a key part of the criminal-justice system, she's not a typical prisons director, she represents a big change for Arizona and it would be interesting to know what makes her tick. She leans back and smiles, almost devilishly.

"You would presume to think you could know that?" she asks.

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