Dora's Darlings

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

Schriro's signature is Parallel Universe, which is essentially an extension of the Seduction Principle. Life in prison should replicate life on the outside so inmates will be ready when they're released. That means requiring prisoners to work or attend school and giving them freedom to decide when they'll do laundry, visit the commissary, fill prescriptions or otherwise spend time. Elected inmate councils should help decide how prisons are run. There should be more drug treatment and an emphasis on victims' rights, with prisoners donating to charities and listening to victims and their families talk about the consequences of crime.

It's just getting started in Arizona, and it's an idea in diametric opposition to old-school prisons, where inmates are herded en masse and told what to do every moment of every day. But it can be sold to liberals as good social policy or to conservatives as get-their-buns-out-of-bed.

Schriro says Parallel Universe helped lower Missouri recidivism by more than 30 percent while she was in the Show-Me State. But Parallel Universe was adopted at just one prison in Missouri, which has dropped the program. And Schriro's statistics are questionable.

Under Schriro's administration, recidivism actually increased, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. In fiscal year 1992, the year before Schriro arrived, slightly more than 25 percent of released inmates returned to Missouri prisons within two years. In fiscal year 2001, the year she left, the percentage had climbed to nearly 31 percent, according to the department. Asked to explain the discrepancy, Schriro through her spokeswoman stuck to her claims, admitting that recidivism statistics can be tricky but not saying how she arrived at her figures.

In Arizona, some say Schriro's quest to fix felons is going too far. For instance, a psychologist told the blue-ribbon panel that Schriro's insistence on involuntary treatment for sex offenders poses a security risk, given that therapy groups must meet in privacy with no cameras or guards present.

Gross, who's spent 15 years working in Missouri prisons, scoffs at the notion that life behind bars can be anything like life on the street. "I'm sorry, but they're confined," the union chief says. "They have inmates making birdhouses and dolls as part of this restorative-justice program, but it has no impact on these people."

But Parallel Universe is coming to Arizona, where Schriro sees too much idleness despite a state law requiring inmates to work 40 hours a week. The kind of work is important, she says, and so she's consulting with community colleges to develop education programs that will result in marketable skills.

Noting that the average inmate is confined less than three years, Schriro says preparation for release should begin the moment prisoners enter the system. "In my view, we don't have a moment to lose," she says. "When you think about it, it's, 'Oh my gosh, we have 33 months to undo and redo a way of living that culminated in this incarceration.'"

Schriro dismisses any notion that it will cost an already strained system additional money to put inmates to work and watch them to ensure they don't misbehave while they're enrolled in these new programs. Indeed, taxpayers, Schriro insists, will save money now and in the future -- instead of contracting for janitorial and maintenance work, the department will use inmates. "If we were to fail in these endeavors -- and we will not fail -- all that we would succeed in doing is transferring our inmate population from prison, which is fundamentally a welfare system, back to the street where they would just pick up with another welfare system," she says.

Such words should be music for Donna Hamm, a Tempe lawyer who heads Middle Ground, a prison-reform organization. But Hamm grades Schriro a D-minus. "We refer to her as Dora the Explorer -- she seems to have a lot of ideas but few plans," Hamm says.

Hamm accuses Schriro of slapping a few victims'-rights programs onto the existing system and calling it restorative justice. She dismisses inmate charity work as pandering. "She has simply decided that restorative justice means having inmates build wheelchair ramps and fix bicycles for kids," Hamm says. "Those are ways that allow inmates to soothe the emotions of guilt, but it's at the expense of self-reliance and self-responsibility."

Citing an inmate barber who recently donated $2,200 -- his entire savings for five years of work -- to children's charities, Hamm says Schriro's vision isn't realistic and could actually boost recidivism. "Is the community going to embrace him when he's released from prison with his $50 gate money and he's not saved any money for food or housing or clothing or transportation?" Hamm asks.

Bottom line, Hamm says, Schriro hasn't changed anything since she's been in Arizona. "I have a sense that she's under a lot of pressure to not make too many changes because the staff morale is so low that anything she does that looks like she's soft on inmates or operating a kinder, gentler prison system will rebound to look like she cares more about inmates than she does about staff," Hamm says.

But Schriro wins praise from Joe Masella, who heads the Arizona guards union and sees Parallel Universe as a way to get inmates off their asses. "This poor woman hasn't even had a chance to do her job," Masella says. "I love her."

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