Dora's Darlings

Dora Schriro lives in a parallel universe, a place where teenage thugs sit on Santa's lap and Girl Scouts visit penitentiaries. In Schriro's world, parolees are called "clients," not criminals. It's a land of jailhouse picnics, where inmates raise money for charity -- when they're not busy doing arts and crafts.

That's not a fantasy, it's reality in the places where Schriro, whose career in corrections spans three decades, has worked. And her spaceship has landed in Arizona, where Schriro was confirmed last week as director of the state's Department of Corrections.

Schriro promises to repair a dysfunctional, overcrowded prison system in a law-and-order state with the highest incarceration rate in the West. Her critics call her naive, a criminal coddler who thinks she can fix felons and turn them into productive citizens. Her fans call her a progressive, someone who sees the folly in throw-away-the-key and isn't afraid to stand up to the old school.

In announcing Schriro's appointment last year, Governor Janet Napolitano said the prison system is in crisis and needs an overhaul. "Dora Schriro is one of America's leading minds on modern, effective prison management," the governor said.

A strange statement coming from Napolitano, who allies herself with the likes of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and clearly enjoys a tough-on-crime reputation that dates back to her days as Arizona's U.S. Attorney.

As a licensed social worker who's never worn a guard's uniform or worked a cellblock wondering whether she'll go home in one piece, Schriro approaches prison from an academic perspective instead of from the trenches. She sounds like a liberal, but she's accustomed to swimming in conservative waters. She's run state prisons in Missouri, where she oversaw more than 40 executions -- even though there's ample evidence to suggest she may not entirely support the death penalty. Before coming to Arizona, she was a finalist for top corrections posts in Idaho and Texas.

During her 11 months on the job, Schriro has wasted no time introducing her parallel universe. She's selling ice cream sandwiches to prisoners, with profits going to victims' groups. She's overhauled a salary system so archaic that some employees were getting pay reductions when they were promoted. She's tapping community colleges to improve education programs. She wants alternatives to prison for criminals who violate terms of probation or parole.

With a penchant for fashionable high heels and frequent hairdo changes, Dora Schriro comes off as more Betty Crocker than Brubaker in photographs adorning the department's newsletter. At 54, she's a brainiac with a master's degree in psychology, a doctorate in education and a law-school diploma, smart enough to survive long-term at the top levels of government where mavericks rarely thrive.

Schriro obviously doesn't like anyone looking over her shoulder. During the January prison hostage standoff at the Lewis Prison, she demanded, and got, a near blackout on release of information by the media, saying that publicizing even the names of inmates and guards would invite catastrophe. Afterward, she still refused to release such basic information as guards' names. Napolitano's staff fed reporters ridiculous excuses, such as a rape-shield statute, that clearly didn't apply to public records requests. Schriro wouldn't budge, despite her legal obligations. "I know the law is not on my side," she told the Arizona Republic when the newspaper pressed her to disclose documents. The department has also fought the release of a grand jury report on the standoff, which exposed huge shortfalls in prison security.

Schriro does fine speaking to lawmakers and college criminology classes, but she doesn't look entirely comfortable faced with a reporter as she sits in her office a few days before the Senate confirms her. One month after New Times first asked to speak with her, she's finally granted an interview -- after asking to see the questions in advance. While her hand gestures flow, you notice an indentation on her thumb where her forefinger has dug in. It's 7:15 a.m., and she's sipping a Diet Pepsi.

"I got your questions," she begins. "If it's all right with you, I'd like to kind of rearrange them." She launches a half-hour summary of her reform plans, none of it surprising to anyone who's looked at the department's Web site or listened to her pitch legislators. Her enthusiasm is obvious.

"For me, corrections, it's important work, it's rewarding work," she says. "And it's fundamentally optimistic work."

Most of the questions remain unanswered after she finishes this rehearsal of opening remarks she'll give to the Senate confirmation committee. There isn't much time left to talk about her past, her personal life or the recent prison hostage crisis that put her administration on the hot seat -- she's running behind schedule and suits are waiting in the foyer.

What kind of story are you doing, she asks, and why?

She's told that she runs a key part of the criminal-justice system, she's not a typical prisons director, she represents a big change for Arizona and it would be interesting to know what makes her tick. She leans back and smiles, almost devilishly.

"You would presume to think you could know that?" she asks.

She says she wants to finish the conversation next week. But she never finds the time.

Dora Schriro is used to questions about security.

In 2002, she was in charge when five inmates broke out of the St. Louis jail, prompting the mayor to suspend her for two weeks. Outside investigators found major problems ranging from broken locks to visitors who weren't searched at the front door. New to the St. Louis job, Schriro swore she'd already identified many of the shortfalls, but training lackluster on the finer points of security such as front-door searches would take time. "It's not just explaining how to do something, but why you're doing it so that they understand the rationale behind the search," she told the Riverfront Times of St. Louis. "It's a little bit of getting into the Zen, if you will."

Her Arizona reform crusade was eclipsed earlier this year, when a pair of inmates at the Lewis complex near Buckeye held two guards hostage for 15 days, the longest prison standoff in U.S. history.

Her defenders say she inherited security problems from predecessors -- she'd been in Arizona less than seven months before the hostage crisis, less than four months prior to the St. Louis jailbreak.

But there were no major meltdowns during the eight years Schriro ran Missouri prisons. A report filed two weeks ago in Maricopa County Superior Court by special prosecutor Mel McDonald, a former U.S. attorney, might help pin down Schriro's culpability in the hostage crisis, but the corrections department fought its release on the eve of the director's confirmation, and it remained secret at press time.

The hostage crisis forced Schriro to acknowledge major security problems in Arizona's prisons, but she didn't sound worried after touring the state's lockups last year.

"This state is fortunate!" she gushed in the department's fall newsletter. "Each and every unit and work group is nothing short of exceptional cadres of corrections professionals. The department's policies reflect many of the field's best security practices, and your mastery of that material is self-evident in your outstanding performance of your duties."

That kind of talk prompts critics to say Schriro is out of touch.

Wade Siers, a former prison medical investigator who was once a DOC guard and worked in the system for more than two years, blames Schriro for the standoff. She thinks of prisons more as Petri dishes than places to lock up vermin who would otherwise be robbing, raping and pillaging, he says, and puts social work ahead of security. He faults her for touring prisons with an entourage last year instead of showing up unannounced.

"She made no effort to step out of that office and see for herself the real version rather than what her administrative toadies were telling her," Siers says.

Chase Riveland, a member of a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Governor Janet Napolitano to review the hostage standoff, says problems at Lewis were obvious to him, from watching guards and inmates interact when the panel toured the prison. "I'm not sure that the person walking on the street is going to see it, but people in the field can identify it almost immediately," says Riveland, former head of prisons in Washington and Colorado. Nonetheless, Riveland, who's known Schriro for more than a decade, says she holds no blame for the standoff because she hasn't had a chance to repair the system.

Whether it's her fault or not, it's certainly Schriro's job to explain the disaster and what she's doing to prevent a repeat. And that's what she attempted at an April meeting of the blue-ribbon panel.

Looking every bit the academic, she sits midway at a conference table in the Governor's Office, reading glasses perched low on her nose, documents and note pad at the ready, pen poised in her left hand. But she'll take no notes. The panel picked by the governor who appointed her is a friendly audience. Nonetheless, appearances are important. There are two television cameras and a half-dozen reporters in the room, a fraction of the horde that descended on Lewis when the inmates took over a supposedly impenetrable tower with laughable ease.

The review panel discovered a guard sleeping when it toured the prison after the standoff ended. Guards had cell phones, handheld electronic games and CDs, all considered contraband, while they were supposed to be keeping the public -- and each other -- safe from some of the state's most dangerous denizens. In a classic move by Schriro, who's already earned a reputation here for withholding public documents, the department resisted releasing the report, which was leaked to the media a month after the panel's tour.

Lapses at Lewis should have come as no surprise even to a relative newcomer like Schriro, who started work on July 1 of last year. The prison has long been known for lax security exacerbated by a shortage of guards and a surplus of inmates. After whistle-blowers came forward three years ago, corrections investigators found nearly a quarter of the complex's 875 uniformed employees weren't weapons-qualified, and that supervisors didn't check credentials before assigning guards to armed posts, according to an internal investigative report obtained by New Times.

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.

"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.

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."

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?

This much is known. In Missouri, Schriro owned a sailboat. She likes to cook and grow her own herbs, according to decade-old St. Louis news clip. She's a widow.

Her husband was Gay Carraway, a retired police captain and the director of public safety in St. Louis, two notches above Schriro in the chain of command when she was workhouse warden. She married him on Valentine's Day, 1991, less than five months after a St. Louis Post-Dispatch gossip columnist noted that the couple was vacationing together in New England. After the relationship became public, Carraway left his post to become an aide in the mayor's office. Schriro insists there was nothing improper. "As director of public safety, he was in my chain of command, but not my boss," she explains. "When we were married, he had been in the mayor's office for some time. There was no reporting relationship except the reporting relationship of husband and wife."

On the surface, it was an unlikely match. For one thing, Carraway, who died of cancer 10 months after the marriage, was more than 20 years older than Schriro. Plus, he'd been a career police officer, an occupation not known for progressive thinkers in criminal-justice matters. But Carraway was an Everyman cop who could quote Shakespeare, perfect for a woman as bright as Schriro, says Harmon. "It didn't seem extraordinary, with the exception of the age difference," he says.

Schriro declines to discuss her marriage in any detail. "It's very personal," she explains. "It was splendid -- it was the most extraordinary relationship I've ever known. And when I talk about it, I still tear up." Today, she lives alone in a house in central Phoenix with Raffle, the cocker spaniel she owned with her late husband.

More recently, Schriro has been involved with a college professor from Illinois, Harmon says. "He's a poet, of all things," Harmon exclaims. "He's a guy who was a Vietnam vet, had been in the hard stuff in 'Nam -- a tough guy who writes poetry. He's as different from Gay as white is from black -- that's a literal kind of comment, too. I assume they're still dating, albeit long distance."

Schriro matched police in off-duty conversations about the workaday world of cops and robbers. "We coppers would sit around and tell our war stories," Harmon recalls. "Well, Dora talked about the social-service aspects, or the social-science aspects, of corrections, about turning lives around in the same way we told war stories. You're sort of standing there, trying to figure it out: She likes that? She made us understand they were human beings, some of whom had people who loved them, but also that they were not irredeemable."

Which isn't to say Harmon considers Schriro a softy. "She is polite, almost demure, but there's a veneer of toughness that you get a sense of: Don't cross this lady," he says.

And don't expect straight answers to questions Schriro doesn't like.

In Missouri, Williams and state Senator Harold Caskey recall Schriro objecting to corrections employees carrying firearms. In St. Louis, Williams says, Schriro tried to suspend guards who were caught carrying firearms off-duty, but the city's circuit attorney wouldn't prosecute on the grounds that state law allowed it, and the suspensions didn't stick. At the state level, Caskey remembers Schriro opposed a bill to allow probation-parole officers to carry guns. "She did not like that," Caskey says. "So I told her one day, it would be easier to get her fired than to change her mind."

The bill passed. And the senator and director eventually formed a bond, working together on a bill aimed at reducing sentences for nonviolent criminals.

Schriro dances around questions about her stance on corrections employees carrying firearms, saying she never spoke against Caskey's bill. Is the senator mistaken? "I had some concerns about some drafting," Schriro replies, without revealing any specifics. "That was a very long time ago. But I did not speak against the bill." A politically safe answer, but not an enlightening one.

In tight spots, Schriro can play coy, recall things differently than others or simply can't get things straight. During a 2002 hearing in St. Louis, she testified that she'd never considered anything short of firing for a workhouse official she tried to terminate after escapes. When the official's attorney produced a memo showing she'd recommended a transfer to another lockup, Schriro claimed she hadn't remembered it. In February, a federal judge presiding over an inmate lawsuit threw out an affidavit from Schriro on the grounds that it wasn't reliable ("Reasonable Doubt," February 19).

She also can't recall Roosevelt Pollard and Elroy Preston, murderers whose lives she spared by halting scheduled executions so judges could determine their mental competence.

Pollard, who killed a stranger at a highway rest stop, was less than two weeks from the gurney in 1997 when Schriro requested a competency hearing after meeting with his lawyers, who argued he was schizophrenic. In 1998, Schriro saved Preston's life by requesting a hearing less than a week before his execution date. Known as the Fried Chicken Killer, Preston had butchered two people with a knife, dipped a piece of chicken in their blood, then devoured it. Pollard is now off death row. Preston's case is still pending.

Richard Sindel, Pollard's lawyer, says Schriro met with him and another attorney for the killer for about an hour. "He was on the fast track to hell," Sindel says. "She was in a position as head of Department of Corrections to request a psychiatric evaluation of Roosevelt and to stay the execution -- she had that unique power based upon the statutes of Missouri. The buck stopped with her. I think it was a ballsy act."

Today, neither killer's name rings a bell with Schriro, nor does she recall the meeting with Sindel. "I don't remember talking to [defense] attorneys, per se," she says. "I don't think I would have." She explains that she would have relied on recommendations from state mental-health experts.

Stopping executions isn't the only way Schriro has suggested by her actions that she's against the death penalty. In 1999, she overruled a subordinate and opened death row to Benetton, an Italian clothing manufacturer that produced an ad campaign featuring condemned inmates. Police, victims' groups and legislators blasted the company for insensitivity even as Benetton was putting up billboards of the doomed.

Arguing that prison officials had been misled, the state attorney general sued Benetton with Schriro as his plaintiff, claiming the company had lied its way onto death row by claiming a photographer and interviewer were from Newsweek. That's not what Thomas "Speedy" Rice, an anti-death-penalty lawyer who helped organize the death-row visit, told Missouri prison officials in letters explaining the project and requesting access.

One letter was written on National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers stationery that listed Rice as head of a committee dedicated to abolishing the death penalty. Rice wrote that Benetton was sponsoring the project and that millions of brochures would be distributed around the world. He also telephoned Schriro and sent copies of previous Benetton ad campaigns centered on social issues. "We didn't mislead them at all," Rice says. "The letters couldn't have been clearer."

Schriro could have taken responsibility and admitted that Benetton had been forthright. But she remained silent while the attorney general ranted in the newspapers. Rice doesn't blame her for not taking a stand. "She's probably looking at this career going up in smoke over something that she probably didn't think about, the way it unfolded," Rice says. The lawsuit was settled, with Benetton admitting no wrongdoing but donating $50,000 to a victim-compensation fund and apologizing to families of victims of the Missouri inmates, one of whom was ultimately exonerated and freed from prison.

Schriro won't talk about her views on the death penalty. But some folks wonder.

"I wondered about it," says Tom Block, an anti-death-penalty activist from St. Louis who suggested that Rice contact Schriro to get onto death row. "I never could break her on that, but I respected her for not answering that question in the position that she's in."

Block, who calls Schriro a "humanist," says he never thought she was soft. Rather, she was fair. "If somebody were asking, I know that I wouldn't get Mother Teresa to be superintendent, but I certainly wouldn't mind hearing that Dora Schriro was superintendent of prisons," he offers.

Is she trustworthy? If she makes a promise, can you take it to the bank?

"Let me think about that," Block replies. Twelve seconds pass before he answers. "In my experience, yes," he finally says. "I know her critics would say something different."

The average tenure for a state prison director in the United States is less than three years. Schriro lasted eight in Missouri.

She was replaced in 2001 when a new governor brought in a former police chief who had headed the state Department of Public Safety, which includes the highway patrol. State Representative Larry Crawford, who sits on a legislative corrections committee and has two prisons in his district, says Schriro had to go. Employee morale, he says, had plummeted.

"She was very much a micromanager," he says. "Most people were just scared to death of Dora. All of her [prison] superintendents were in fear, and not out of respect, but the kind of fear that comes from micromanaging and ruling her staff with a kind of iron fist. We had to get her out of the prison system."

Sherry Boldt, who was second in command under Schriro, says most of Schriro's staff respected -- but not necessarily liked -- her. But Schriro had faults. "In her strive for dedication and perfection, she sometimes, I think, overworks an issue," Boldt says. "To me, one thing all of us should be working on is hiring the best people we can and relying on their judgment."

When Boldt arrived, a backlog of grievances had built up in the director's office that took more than a year to whittle away. Some were frivolous, such as inmates complaining they were served Texas toast when they were promised garlic bread, others were more substantive. "There are times when you need to get things expedited instead of 100 percent perfect," Boldt says.

Schriro has demonstrated a propensity for handling things herself in Arizona. She took charge of strategic decisions during the hostage standoff, setting the rules for snipers and repeatedly reviewing a script used by a radio reporter to interview one of the inmates. After the crisis was over, she telephoned an Arizona Republic reporter at 2:30 a.m. when she learned the paper was publishing a story revealing that Lois Fraley, one of the captive guards, had been raped. Shortly afterward, Fraley appeared on Good Morning America.

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."

Of course, it helps that Schriro wants to increase pay, even though salaries for corrections officers in Arizona rank in the middle compared with other states. Schriro has also allowed the guards' union to post information on bulletin boards inside institutions and recruit members at the department's training academy.

Salaries aside, Masella says Schriro's door and mind are always open, and she isn't snooty despite the letters behind her name. "That's the part that amazes me the most," he says. "She's down-to-earth, somebody you'd love to just go out and have a beer with. So many people like that have their noses in the air."

But one meeting with Schriro was enough for Siers, the former medical investigator who says the director is soft on inmates.

Siers says he and other investigators who handle claims of substandard health care asked for a meeting last August when the director's office returned their reports without saying what was wrong. One report concerned an inmate who asked for a below-knee prosthesis.

Siers said he could find no evidence that the inmate had ordered an artificial limb before he was incarcerated, plus a nurse had seen the prisoner playing basketball. "He was provided crutches," Siers recalls. "I sent my answer to the director to sign off. She sent it back asking, 'What is the community standard of care regarding this issue?'"

Community standards are irrelevant, says Siers. This is prison, and medical care should be limited to medically necessary treatment to sustain life and health rather than a more expansive standard that would apply in the outside world and include prosthetics.

Siers says he was already worried after reading an article on Parallel Universe that Schriro wrote for the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the federal Department of Justice. Meeting her was the final straw. "I bailed -- I had a job lined up the next day and went back into mortgage lending," he says.

Schriro doesn't recall Siers, but she does remember the reports. The tone, she says, was wrong and reports often didn't provide direct answers to complaints. "They had a lot of boilerplate," she says.

With dangerously overcrowded prisons and a shortage of guards on her hands, Siers says Schriro had more important things to worry about than medical reports during her first month on the job. In St. Louis, Williams also says Schriro's priorities were skewed, which was abundantly clear when she told the Board of Aldermen that she'd hired janitors to clean the workhouse when she was hired two months before the jailbreak that led to her suspension.

"None of the [security problems] hit her radar screen, but the roaches did," the St. Louis union boss says. "As an administrator, I think she has a tendency to be a tree person. She doesn't see the forest.

"Once you listen closely and you pay attention to what she says -- and sometimes, more importantly, what she doesn't say -- you'll see that Dora is not a deep thinker at all."

Minutes after the Senate confirmation committee unanimously approves her, Dora Schriro is all smiles and awash in hugs from Masella and other supporters.

Senators had no tough questions, even on the Lewis standoff. In the end, and with no smoking gun proving that Schriro's policies led to the standoff, she clearly wasn't worth fighting over on the last day of a legislative session dominated by contentious arguments over the state budget.

Donna Hamm was the only person who testified against her, and Schriro brushes her aside after the meeting when Hamm repeatedly demands an answer to a months-old request for public documents. It's an obvious ploy to embarrass Schriro in front of reporters, who also complain that she's slow to release public records. But the director isn't cowed.

"Not now, Donna," Schriro says in a tone stern enough that it would be a bark if she wasn't so soft-spoken.

E-mail bruce.rushton@newtimes.com, or call 602-407-1715.

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