Raising Arizona’s Commitment to Health and Safety: The Need for Independent Oversight of Arizona’s Prison System

Michele Deitch 
Distinguished Senior Lecturer
The University of Texas at Austin Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

This article provides guidance to policymakers interested in how an independent prison oversight mechanism could help promote healthier and safer prison conditions and help keep legislators and the public better informed about what is happening inside these institutions.  

Arizona’s correctional system has long been the subject of high-profile lawsuits, scandals, and other serious grievances that demand increased levels of transparency and accountability. This article provides guidance to policymakers interested in how an independent prison oversight mechanism could help promote healthier and safer prison conditions and help keep legislators and the public better informed about what is happening inside these institutions. The need for such transparency has only increased during the COVID-19 crisis. The article examines the current state of conditions in Arizona prisons; discusses federal court involvement on issues related to prison health care in the Parsons class action case; addresses the critical need for permanent independent oversight of the Arizona prison system; and explores what an oversight body in Arizona might look like. Most significantly, the article examines recent legislation in Arizona that proposed potential structures for a prison oversight body, and recommends an approach for Arizona that builds on lessons from other jurisdictions about how to make this independent oversight entity as effective as possible.

Key Findings:

  • The Arizona prison system is awash in serious, deep, and systemic problems that affect the safety and health of both people in custody and staff who work in the prisons.

  • Federal court oversight of Arizona’s troubled correctional health care system as a result of the Parsons litigation does not satisfy the need for routine preventive monitoring of prison conditions by an independent government oversight body.

  • Independent prison oversight benefits not only people in custody but also correctional administrators and policymakers, and leads to safer institutions for both incarcerated people and for staff members. The American Bar Association’s Resolution on Independent Correctional Oversight calls on all states to develop independent prison oversight mechanisms and provides guidance on the key elements of effectiveness in an oversight body.

  • There is a national trend of designing independent prison oversight bodies using an independent ombudsman model, where the ombudsman conducts routine inspections of prison facilities, assesses systemic problems, investigates some individual complaints, and issues public findings and recommendations.

Key Recommendations:

  • Changing the troubled culture of the prison agency and making it a safe environment that respects and meets the needs of both incarcerated people and staff requires an independent oversight body that can monitor and report on conditions of confinement and on the treatment of people incarcerated in these facilities.

  • It is critically important that any oversight mechanism that is created be independent of the prison agency and that it be given “golden key access” to prison facilities, a mandate to monitor and report publicly on conditions of confinement, and a responsibility to issue systemic recommendations to improve the treatment of people who are incarcerated. Legislation should track the requirements set forth in the ABA Resolution.

  • The Arizona Legislature should pass legislation to establish such an oversight body using the concept and language from House Bill 2894 by Representative Blackman (54th Leg., 2d Reg. Sess.), which would have created an independent corrections ombudsman for Arizona similar to newly established bodies in Washington State and New Jersey.

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