Arizona prisons are notorious reservoirs of criminal behavior, and apparently that's just the staff.
Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan admits as much in a recent post to his "Director's Desk" blog, wherein he states that "in the past four and a half years, there have been 640 staff arrests," of which, 433 "were for behaviors like domestic violence, fighting, assaults, harassment, drug use and possession, and drinking-related offenses."
Ryan also relates that ADC staff arrests are on the rise, "averaging almost eleven arrests per month."
A startling, and very public admission, and yet, the blog item is addressed to ADC employees, with an almost plaintive tone that's far more carrot than the stick you might expect from the top dog at a penal institution.
"No one doubts that employment in corrections can place unique pressures on staff," notes Ryan in a fatherly tone. "Yet irresponsible alcohol consumption or drug abuse - which can lead to Driving Under the Influence (DUI) - and a tendency to solve problems with violence are neither acceptable nor wise tactics for dealing with those pressures."
Ryan details a number of options for staff with emotional or substance abuse issues, and he promises that he will soon add "another corrections-focused employee program," which will provide "education and support for our staff and their families" to assist with the "unique challenges" of being a corrections officer.
"For those employees who are feeling the stress, it is not a sign of weakness to seek help," Ryan writes. "On the contrary, it is a sign of strength and courage to choose the constructive path, and I urge you to do so."
Which sounds more like TV Pastor Joel Osteen than the hard-nosed administrator known to some detractors as "Vader," as in "Darth Vader."
Ryan worked for the U.S. Department of Justice as an assistant program manager overseeing the Iraqi prison system for almost four years during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
(Abu Ghraib? Ryan wasn't implicated in the abuses there, but Abu Ghraib was one of the prisons that he reportedly helped rebuild.)
You might remember Ryan as the guy who made the call to pull the plug on an indigent, brain-dead Marcia Powell back in 2009.
Powell, 48, had been serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution when she collapsed after being confined to an outdoor cage at Goodyear's Perryville Prison for more than four hours in 107 degree heat without water.
No one was ever prosecuted for Powell's death, though 16 prison employees were either fired or sanctioned. Powell's demise caused howls of outrage from prison reform advocates and resulted in changes to ADC's outside enclosures, such as access to water and shade.
One of those howling the loudest back then was Donna Hamm, executive director of Arizona's Middle Ground Prison Reform. Hamm was unaware of the blog item when I called her, but after reading it she was surprised, and full of questions.
"If they're convicted, do they have the ability to keep their weapons?" she wondered of ADC staff. "If they have a domestic violence [conviction], are they reassigned so they're not allowed to work in female prisons?"
ADC spokesman Bill Lamoreaux stated via email that ADC "did not analyze the data beyond what was posted online," and so was unaware of the conviction rate or "the specific discipline resulting from the arrests."
Lamoreaux said that the purpose of the director's message to its 9,284 employees was to advise them of available services, as well as to solicit input.
"The 640 arrests over the past 4.5 fiscal years represent the total number of arrests and criminal citations throughout the Department," wrote Lamoreaux. "The arrests equal approximately 140 per year, or almost 11 arrests a month. This averages out to about 1.5% of the employees in the Department being arrested or criminally cited annually.
"The Director is concerned about these arrests. The message is to share this concern and to provide assistance to those that may want or need it."
Sounds noble enough on its face, but Hamm noted the very public nature of this disclosure, and the fact that the data comes from an internal document called the "ADC Morning Report," which she says is not made readily available to the public.
I asked Hamm why she thought Ryan went this public route instead of choosing a less public method to communicate with his employees.
"I think he's got a problem that he doesn't know what to do with," Hamm replied. "He's going to claim he doesn't have the resources to do anything, but I think he just doesn't know what to do about it."
Why not apply more stick as opposed to carrot? Why not stiffen discipline for offenders and start firing people?
"It's our experience that [ADC honchos] don't fire people very often," she said. "They shuffle [problem employees] around from post to post. Ryan's got a lot invested in these people once they get through [ADC's] academy, a lot of money in training and so on."
Hamm wanted to see how ADC's rate of criminality compared with other law enforcement and correction agencies, in state and out of state.
Truly, Ryan's unusual admission about his own employees opens a Pandora's box of questions for the director. Lamoreaux says Ryan may be available Monday. If so, perhaps he'll choose to answer some of them.
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