Feathered Bastard

Arizona Abu Ghraib? Will Terry Stewart Take Over AZ Prisons from Dora Schriro Despite His Iraqi Prisons Link?

As you may have read elsewhere, Arizona Department of Corrections Director Dora Schriro has announced her resignation, and by the end of the week will have vacated her offices to follow ex-Governor Janet Napolitano to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Yet, what exactly she'll be doing there remains a little vague.

"I still can't be terrifically precise," the director told me in a phone conversation yesterday. "I will be officed in ICE. However, I'll be reporting to the deputy secretary."

Schriro seemed genuinely excited to be heading to DC to serve under Napolitano, who appointed her to ADC's top post in 2003. She said there had been no pressure from the Brewer administration to depart, and that Brewer's people had made a point of telling her she did not need to submit a resignation letter.

Though Schriro has been labeled a reformer by some during her five-plus years as director, she's come under criticism from both advocates of prisoners' rights and old school corrections hands. For instance, opinion was, and still is, split over her handling of the 15-day Lewis Prison hostage crisis in January of 2004, where a pair of inmates took control of a guard tower, keeping two guards hostage.

During the standoff, the female guard, who was held for entire 15 days, was raped. Schriro was lambasted for micromanaging the response, and for not allowing her people to storm the tower. Ultimately, the crisis was resolved through negotiations, and without any deaths. Schriro remains convinced that she acted appropriately. (The corrections employee who was sexually assaulted, Lois Fraley, credited Schriro with saving her life.)

"If it had been our position that we were going to take the tower back at all costs, " Schriro explained, "because by gosh, it was our tower, we would have used extraordinary force. We would have done it quickly and our two corrections officers that were held hostage would've been killed -- as would many other responders -- before we accomplished that goal."

She points to other prison standoffs that resulted in loss of life, such as the 1971 Attica Prison uprising, or the 1993 riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. She claims that hers is the only correctional system that's had a hostage situation "of any duration" where no one's been killed.

Schriro's also caught flack for the impression that she's too soft on prisoners. A 2004 New Times cover story by reporter Bruce Rushton, titled "Dora's Darlings," detailed Schriro's concept of a "parallel universe," the idea that, as Rushton wrote, "Life in prison should replicate life on the outside so inmates will be ready when they're released."

The program has been controversial to some. But in practice, it helped garner her an award in 2008 from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, which came with a $100,000 grant to help replicate it nationwide. The ADC Web site also sings the praises of Schriro's innovations, advertising that prison violence is significantly down and that more inmates are being "readied" for release by earning their GEDs.

But whatever good work Schriro may have done during her tenure might be imperiled if former ADC chief Terry Stewart takes her place, as has been rumored. Stewart, who served as director from 1995 to 2002, has a reputation that does not endear him to the prisoners' rights crowd. Already opposition to Stewart is galvanizing among prison reform advocates such as the Tucson chapter of  American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization dedicated to social justice.

In an e-mail widely distributed this week, AFSC stated that, "No rumor is more concerning to prisoners, their families, or prison reform advocates than the specter of Terry Stewart returning to run the department." The e-mail urges the recipients to contact Governor Brewer's office and voice opposition to a possible Stewart appointment.

In 2003, Stewart was one of the 25 officials tapped by the Department of Justice to help rebuild the Iraqi prison system, a system that included the now infamous Abu Ghraib, the abuses of which were exposed by the New Yorker and 60 Minutes in early 2004. A stinging 2004 press release issued by the office of New York Senator Charles Schumer referred to Stewart as a "tainted" individual, and had the following to say about Stewart's record as a former ADC director:

"Schumer revealed that Terry Stewart, one of a handful of former prison officials recruited by the Department of Justice to help rebuild Iraq's prison system, came under scrutiny for numerous incidents involving the mistreatment of inmates while serving as the head of the Arizona Department of Corrections from 1995-2002. In 1997, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division named Stewart in a suit brought against the Arizona Department of Corrections concerning a pattern of sexual assault against female prisoners by male prison guards. Stewart was charged with knowingly turning a blind eye to repeated incidents of sexual abuse by guards against female prisoners ranging from sexual assault, rape and sodomy to watching female prisoners undress and use the restroom. The suit was eventually settled after the Arizona Department of Corrections agreed to make major changes in numerous prison policies.

"Under Stewart's watch prisoners at Arizona facilities were also made to stand outside in the summer for up to four days in the summer and for up to 17 hours in the winter without sanitation, adequate drinking water, changes of clothing, proper food or protection from the elements. In a third questionable incident a class action suit was brought against the Arizona Department of Corrections during Stewart's tenure charging that the prison system had failed to properly use protective custody to shield certain at-risk inmates from harm."

In a June 3, 2004 Arizona Republic piece, a Justice Department flack said that contractors such as Stewart "left long before Abu Ghraib opened," but the flack "would not say whether Stewart or the other contractors were involved in training American military personnel working in the prisons." A day later, Stewart's business partner and his former superior at ADC Sam Lewis defended Stewart, saying that the sexual abuse of inmates referred to by Schumer occurred under Lewis' tenure as ADC chief. He also pooh-poohed any link between Abu Ghraib and private contractors hired by the DOJ like Stewart. 

I was unable to contact Stewart for comment. Governor Brewer's spokesman Paul Senseman would neither confirm nor deny that Stewart was being considered as Schriro's replacement, and would only say that an announcement would be forthcoming "within the next day or so." Schriro said she did not know if Stewart was being considered, and she would not get into what damage Stewart might be able to do to her legacy as ADC honcho.

"I'm just not going to do that," said Schriro when asked about Stewart. "There's nothing worse than directors and former directors that parachute in. I have made every step to raise the stature of this organization. And this organization is way up at the top. I leave it in great shape for the next person and trust they will do their level best."

Interestingly, Fraley, the female corrections officer taken hostage during the Lewis standoff, wrote the following of Schriro and Stewart in a letter urging the state Senate to confirm Schriro's appointment back in 2004:

"I cannot tell you how grateful I am that Dora was the director when I was taken hostage, and not Terry Stewart...He would have stormed the tower, and I would be dead."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons