Dora's Darlings

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

She says she wants to finish the conversation next week. But she never finds the time.

Dora Schriro is used to questions about security.

Dora's 'dos: Throughout the years, Schriro has 
experimented with more than prisons. Top, ponytailed, 
just after the end of the Lewis Prison standoff; above left, 
at Rikers Island in the '80s; above, curly for the camera 
-- her official Arizona portrait.
Dora's 'dos: Throughout the years, Schriro has experimented with more than prisons. Top, ponytailed, just after the end of the Lewis Prison standoff; above left, at Rikers Island in the '80s; above, curly for the camera -- her official Arizona portrait.
More of Dora's 'dos: short in St. Louis.
Jennifer Silverberg
More of Dora's 'dos: short in St. Louis.

In 2002, she was in charge when five inmates broke out of the St. Louis jail, prompting the mayor to suspend her for two weeks. Outside investigators found major problems ranging from broken locks to visitors who weren't searched at the front door. New to the St. Louis job, Schriro swore she'd already identified many of the shortfalls, but training lackluster on the finer points of security such as front-door searches would take time. "It's not just explaining how to do something, but why you're doing it so that they understand the rationale behind the search," she told the Riverfront Times of St. Louis. "It's a little bit of getting into the Zen, if you will."

Her Arizona reform crusade was eclipsed earlier this year, when a pair of inmates at the Lewis complex near Buckeye held two guards hostage for 15 days, the longest prison standoff in U.S. history.

Her defenders say she inherited security problems from predecessors -- she'd been in Arizona less than seven months before the hostage crisis, less than four months prior to the St. Louis jailbreak.

But there were no major meltdowns during the eight years Schriro ran Missouri prisons. A report filed two weeks ago in Maricopa County Superior Court by special prosecutor Mel McDonald, a former U.S. attorney, might help pin down Schriro's culpability in the hostage crisis, but the corrections department fought its release on the eve of the director's confirmation, and it remained secret at press time.

The hostage crisis forced Schriro to acknowledge major security problems in Arizona's prisons, but she didn't sound worried after touring the state's lockups last year.

"This state is fortunate!" she gushed in the department's fall newsletter. "Each and every unit and work group is nothing short of exceptional cadres of corrections professionals. The department's policies reflect many of the field's best security practices, and your mastery of that material is self-evident in your outstanding performance of your duties."

That kind of talk prompts critics to say Schriro is out of touch.

Wade Siers, a former prison medical investigator who was once a DOC guard and worked in the system for more than two years, blames Schriro for the standoff. She thinks of prisons more as Petri dishes than places to lock up vermin who would otherwise be robbing, raping and pillaging, he says, and puts social work ahead of security. He faults her for touring prisons with an entourage last year instead of showing up unannounced.

"She made no effort to step out of that office and see for herself the real version rather than what her administrative toadies were telling her," Siers says.

Chase Riveland, a member of a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Governor Janet Napolitano to review the hostage standoff, says problems at Lewis were obvious to him, from watching guards and inmates interact when the panel toured the prison. "I'm not sure that the person walking on the street is going to see it, but people in the field can identify it almost immediately," says Riveland, former head of prisons in Washington and Colorado. Nonetheless, Riveland, who's known Schriro for more than a decade, says she holds no blame for the standoff because she hasn't had a chance to repair the system.

Whether it's her fault or not, it's certainly Schriro's job to explain the disaster and what she's doing to prevent a repeat. And that's what she attempted at an April meeting of the blue-ribbon panel.

Looking every bit the academic, she sits midway at a conference table in the Governor's Office, reading glasses perched low on her nose, documents and note pad at the ready, pen poised in her left hand. But she'll take no notes. The panel picked by the governor who appointed her is a friendly audience. Nonetheless, appearances are important. There are two television cameras and a half-dozen reporters in the room, a fraction of the horde that descended on Lewis when the inmates took over a supposedly impenetrable tower with laughable ease.

The review panel discovered a guard sleeping when it toured the prison after the standoff ended. Guards had cell phones, handheld electronic games and CDs, all considered contraband, while they were supposed to be keeping the public -- and each other -- safe from some of the state's most dangerous denizens. In a classic move by Schriro, who's already earned a reputation here for withholding public documents, the department resisted releasing the report, which was leaked to the media a month after the panel's tour.

Lapses at Lewis should have come as no surprise even to a relative newcomer like Schriro, who started work on July 1 of last year. The prison has long been known for lax security exacerbated by a shortage of guards and a surplus of inmates. After whistle-blowers came forward three years ago, corrections investigators found nearly a quarter of the complex's 875 uniformed employees weren't weapons-qualified, and that supervisors didn't check credentials before assigning guards to armed posts, according to an internal investigative report obtained by New Times.

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