Dora's Darlings

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

After four years in New York, Schriro went to St. Louis to fix the city workhouse, a local jail where more than a quarter of the guards had tested positive for drugs and inmates had set up a still.

"She walked into a mess," recalls Clarence Harmon, former St. Louis police chief who went on to become the city's mayor. "They had riots. You could go out there, you'd sit there and be talking to the watch commander who had five diamond rings on, all bigger than your eyes. These guys got paid next to nothing, but they made up for it, you know what I mean. At one point, I told somebody, 'They [inmates] can get drugs, they can get anything. The only thing they can't get is a woman in there.' Well, we found out they could do that, too."

Schriro didn't entirely solve security problems in St. Louis -- there was at least one escape in the four years she was workhouse warden -- but that's not necessarily her fault, Harmon says. "A lot of the problems are institutional," he says. "She made a great turnaround, let's put it that way."

Donna Hamm, a Tempe-based prison-reform activist, 
says Schriro is in over her head.
Jackie Mercandetti
Donna Hamm, a Tempe-based prison-reform activist, says Schriro is in over her head.

Before long, Schriro was making headlines for bringing inmate families into the workhouse for picnics with their felonious loved ones. There were arts and crafts, live theater, Halloween parties and special visits on Mother's Day. During the holidays, she brought in Santa Claus to comfort juveniles charged as adults with crimes as serious as murder. She improved education programs, got inmates involved in charity work and even had voter-registration drives.

Schriro called it the Seduction Principle. "We attempt to seduce people to try something they didn't do before to leave a lingering taste in their mouths so they will continue to seek these activities when they go to another place," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a 1992 interview.

Not everyone was seduced.

JoAnn Williams, head of the St. Louis corrections officers union, says Schriro was soft on inmates. "This was really at the some of the beginning of the escalation of a lot of the gang activity," Williams says. "Corrections officers were concerned that we should not be making a penal institution any more comfortable than it should be -- this is giving some of these kids things they don't even have at home. What is there to discourage them from returning here if you don't make this an unpleasant place?"

The workhouse buzzed when Schriro walked through, says Williams, and it wasn't because she was cracking down. "When Dora first came here, she was a cute little petite thing," Williams recalls. "She used to drive my corrections officers crazy walking down the halls with those miniskirts on. They thought it was inappropriate -- here you've got these guys who've been in jail for a long time and she would stop and talk at all the cells, all breathy and Marilyn Monroe-ish. It was very, very disruptive."

Williams' disdain didn't abate when Schriro came back to run the city corrections department in 2001 after eight years as head of Missouri prisons. "I didn't think there was another female in the United States of America as stupid as Dora until the governor of Arizona stepped into the picture," she says. "I'm just so happy Arizona has taken her away from here. That woman drove me crazy."

Schriro also didn't please guards when she became head of Missouri prisons in 1993, says Gary Gross, executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association. He has the same criticisms as Williams and says Missouri's prisons are safer and more secure since Schriro left, because guards have more authority over inmates.

Gross says Schriro was one of the reasons guards formed a union. "In Missouri, we felt like she gave way too much to the inmates and nothing to the staff," he says. Missouri corrections officers, who make less than their counterparts in Arizona -- where salaries are higher than in 23 other states -- are among the lowest paid in the nation, and turnover is high, he notes.

"She did absolutely nothing about getting pay increases or anything for corrections officers in Missouri," the union head says. "She would actually go into an institution and would not speak to an officer, but yet conduct conversations with inmates. An inmate could make any accusation he wanted to against me and there was absolutely no recourse placed on the inmate for making this accusation. If inmates wanted anything, they got it -- they wanted satellite TV, so they got it."

Consider the name Schriro gave to the department that handled state inmate grievances: Office of Constituent Services, which she credits for a sharp reduction in the number of Missouri prisoner lawsuits. "I don't think she should be commended," Gross says. "If you give inmates everything they request, naturally lawsuits are going to go down.

"Dora Schriro wants to cure inmates with kindness. You can ask any corrections officer: You go into an institution, kindness is weakness. Inmates will exploit that to the limit."

Outside the office, Schriro is an enigma. While she can talk forever about corrections, getting her to talk about herself is tough. She didn't answer the most innocuous e-mailed questions: Who's your favorite author, and what's the last book you read? Who is the most influential person in your life?

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