Dora's Darlings

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

Worse yet, the danger extended beyond prison grounds. Before taking inmates out on work assignments, the staff didn't bother preparing fliers describing them in the event someone escaped, contrary to department policy. Guards who escorted inmates outside the prison weren't adequately trained or supervised, nor were they in reliable radio contact with colleagues. On one occasion, a guard who was supposed to be supervising inmate workers outside the prison was caught sleeping in a van, but he wasn't written up or disciplined. And 34 of 41 pepper-spray containers, one of the first lines of defense against unruly inmates, were past their expiration dates.

Problems persisted, despite the scathing assessment.

Just 10 days before inmates Ricky Wassenaar and Steven Coy took over the tower at Lewis, an anonymous poster on an underground Web site for corrections employees urged his brethren to straighten up.

'Do subdued for a Phoenix summer -- on the day of her 
Senate confirmation hearing.
Jackie Mercandetti
'Do subdued for a Phoenix summer -- on the day of her Senate confirmation hearing.
JoAnn Williams of the St. Louis corrections officers union 
says Schriro drove the guards crazy with her short skirts.
Jennifer Silverberg
JoAnn Williams of the St. Louis corrections officers union says Schriro drove the guards crazy with her short skirts.

"It's time to get a grip on Lewis," wrote the poster, who identified himself as "One of Many" on the Web site called The Lumley Vampire, which is named after a guard murdered in 1997 by an inmate. "Are we going to let that complex sink to the point that we are lowering another officer into the ground? We need to get back to basics. As long as we consistently apply sound correctional practices we can avert most disasters.

"The point is, we need to stop and take a hard look at how we do business."

Less than two weeks later, guard Jason Auch opened the tower door for Wassenaar, who was dressed in guard's clothing, without confirming his identity.

With the crisis over and no one killed, the governor's panel is on the director's side. But this meeting isn't the place to lavish praise on a foundering work force. The panel has issued a report identifying 69 shortcomings in the prison system, but Schriro's been at the top levels of government long enough to know that when this kind of disaster blindsides her, she needs to do better than that. And so Schriro, who has replaced the Lewis warden and reassigned, demoted or suspended five administrators since the crisis, announces her staff has found an additional 106 things that need fixing.

Schriro doesn't fall on any swords, but her deputy Gary Phelps does, telling the panel that its recommendations had already been recommended, but not implemented, by corrections officials during the past seven years. Critical reports on security lapses simply gathered dust, confesses Phelps, a 12-year department veteran. "One night, I contacted the director and apologized," Phelps tells the panel. "I thought we were better than that."

It is a command performance by Schriro and her underlings, one that will gain a favorable story in the next day's Arizona Republic that paints a picture of a get-tough director who's solving problems.

Grant Woods, panel co-chair and former Arizona attorney general, praises Schriro and notes that changing an agency's culture takes time. "After a year or so, it's your problem," he says.

So the honeymoon ends in less than a month.

Dora Schriro has had a few forays outside corrections, including a brief stint in the 1970s running a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Jersey and gigs teaching criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where the dean encouraged her to become a full-time faculty member.

Running prisons, Schriro professes, has always been her first love.

"It grabs me," she says. "I had a 45-minute lecture early in my senior year in high school in criminology. As I've said many times before, it was kind of my V8 moment. I guess, if it was a personal relationship, the equivalent would be love at first sight."

This was a calling from the blue, considering her father designed spacecraft, her mother was a substitute teacher and there were no prisons on Long Island, where she grew up. When Schriro earned her bachelor's in sociology and criminology, a woman's place in prison was as a nurse, a caseworker, a teacher or a probation-parole officer -- and that's the sort of work Schriro originally planned on.

Schriro landed a job at a nonprofit in Massachusetts, working with prison inmates and residents of the state's mental hospital who were about to be released. After that, she spent three years in Massachusetts public schools as a social worker, helping learning-disabled kids with behavioral problems. "I got to see how children with problems could grow up into adults who created great problems for the community," she says.

By 1985, she was at Rikers Island in New York as an assistant commissioner in charge of education programs. Her boss, Janie Jeffers, who is now a management consultant, remembers Schriro as a hard worker. Conscientious. Results-oriented. And ambitious.

"She was very eager to move up the chain," Jeffers recalls. "I would say she was a workaholic. And, frequently, I had to be a buffer for her because she would ruffle feathers."

Overlooking the fact that she was an administrator, Schriro today takes credit for a feat that can only be accomplished by elected officials, claiming she passed legislation forcing the state to pay for inmate education. Schriro may be overstating her juice, but Jeffers says she was tenacious about landing grants and demanding better performance from teachers, often watching them in the classroom.

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