I've been perusing the Arizona Department of Corrections' (ADC) website of late and came across this report with a few things worth sharing. As many regular readers are aware, the ADC is the only state agency this year to have received an increase in their funding, placing their annual budget at about $1 billion. This came despite a decrease in the number of prisoners committed there by the courts since 2009. In fact, the ADC is getting a whole lot of new stuff despite the public's decreasing demand for their services.
To convince us of their dire need, Chuck Ryan and the state's prosecutors have been clamoring all year that 94% of ADC prisoners are "violent or repeat offenders" (as if Vicodin addicts and serial rapists pose an equal threat to the rest of us) and therefore MUST be imprisoned for our safety (see this long report - read between the propaganda, if you can). They argue that our high incarceration rates over the past decade are responsible for a falling crime rate (which was actually seen nationally due to many factors).
In truth, though, there's been a marked decrease in violent offenders among new prisoners being admitted over the past 2 years, so it's not going down because they're all getting put away. Far too many of our resources continue to go towards imprisoning people who have smuggled themselves over the border or worked hard at a job no one else wanted too many times - over 6,000 of our prisoners are foreign nationals - most of whom we just plan to deport after we expend a fortune punishing them.
Actually, contrary to what Chuck Ryan's public claims would lead one to believe, 36% of the state's prisoner population is considered so low-risk that they're in minimum security settings - which means they could be safely walking among us right now. That's over 12,000 people who don't REALLY need to be locked into their beds at night (at about $20,000/year per prisoner) for the sake of public safety.
So why aren't we talking sentencing reform at the legislature this year instead of building 5,000 new prison beds? There's plenty of evidence of the meddling of the private prison lobby and American Legislative Exchange Council in our lawmaking activities here. But there's also a large contingent among law enforcement and corrections - such as ADC Director Chuck Ryan - leading us even further down the path of mass incarceration with fear, not reason. Whether crime goes up or down, their constant refrain is that we need more prisons and police - even when our school budgets are being ravaged.
Charts are from the ADC's 2011 "Data and Information" report. Increases in violence over the past 2 years appear to be more dramatic than the changes in prisoner population and and apparent increase in the staff/prisoner ratio. Despite ADC claims that the violence grew due to budget and staffing cuts, there aren't a significant number of additional CO positions slated to be filled this year.
While there's no hard evidence that Chuck Ryan has - across his career - actually served to reduce crime in Arizona by fighting to secure longer sentences for vast numbers of petty criminals, there's ample proof that he's having a harder time than his predecessor did maintaining a safe environment for both prisoners and staff behind bars. Under his tenure, suicides and homicides have skyrocketed, and assaults are up all over.
Indicators of prison violence are projected to jump even more next year. One would think the ADC would set goals to reduce those rates, not project increases. Sadly, they seem far more concerned with bringing down health care costs than reducing prison violence - even that which is against their own people. In 2009, as Ryan's predecessor was leaving office, 1 in 40 prisoners and 1 in 17 staff were involved in an assault. Things have deteriorated so badly under his directorship that in 2012 1 in 23 prisoners are expected to be involved in fights and assaults, and 1 in 16 staff will be attacked.
Assaults on both prisoners and staff are expected to jump again in 2012. Nothing in the ADC's current 5-year plan addresses how to reduce the assault, suicide or homicide rates. Dora Schriro's reports, on the other hand, looked at these concerns closely.
Meanwhile, prisoners and their families have been told that their lives are of no value to the rest of us short of the revenue that the commodification of their bodies and the enslavement of their labor produces. Visitors have to pay for their security clearance now, rehabilitative programs have been gutted, prisoner pay was cut while medical visit co-pays increased, account deposits are being assessed a new fee, only 2 meals are served each day on the weekends, and women are dying while begging to see a doctor. Things are so bad now that the ACLU National Prison Project and the Prison Law Office are actually talking about suing the ADC for injunctive relief due to the gross medical neglect of their general prison population, as well as the abuse of solitary confinement for prisoners with psychiatric disabilities. That's pretty serious.
The guys are also writing to me more for help getting protective custody throughout the system, saying that the gangs run all the 3 and 4 yards (medium and maximum security) - and few are getting it, despite being assaulted repeatedly. The guards are often part of the problem - several stood out of the way for Dana Seawright's murder, and I know of at least one guard who was prosecuted for taking a $1000 bribe to let someone try and kill a friend of mine for being gay. Look at the assault statistics for different custody levels - they tell the story of prison violence spiraling out of control.
All that those violent perpetrators seem to be getting from being in Chuck Ryan's custody, frankly, is target practice on vulnerable prisoners like Shannon Palmer, carelessly housed among the most dangerous. That way both the thugs and the brutalized are good and ready for us when they get out. That's neither tough nor smart on crime - It's just hardest on the most easily victimized prisoners, like the very old, the very gentle, and those with psychiatric, developmental, and physical disabilities - many of whom landed in prison due to the shredded safety net in our state, not due to their inherent criminality.
I suspect from all that I've seen that the violence among prisoners in our state institutions is actually serving a purpose for the ADC. The gangs keep prisoners divided by race and high on heroin so they can't unite against the real enemy and resist the conditions of their confinement. Fear keeps people spending all their energy just surviving prison life, too, and posits other prisoners as sources of danger while making it appear as if their only hope for safety will come from the institution (often in exchange for something), if it comes at all.
In order words, the gangs and yard leaders are in on it with Chuck in a very convenient relationship. How ironic that they're the ones demanding to see guys' police reports for evidence they haven't snitched on anyone when they're the main parties in collusion with the guards and ADC brass. Gang members and leaders make a show of resisting authority, but they are hardly the enemy of the state, by any means. They are in bed with them. Feel free to tell them I said that, too. Too many prisoners are being tattooed and led astray by the very rats who sell all of you out to maintain their own comfort and safety every day. If you were to unite amongst yourselves and start organizing around a new analysis of power inside, you might have a chance at disrupting that particular culture.
So spread the word and call them on their shit, guys - not only does the police report they insist on seeing fail to identify those who turned state's evidence later (everyone pisses their pants when they get busted, so they know you're likely to have something in that report they can make a big deal of), but they have no business questioning your integrity when they've been collaborating with the police state for a long time now. The gang violence also makes you all look bad out here, dehumanizing prisoners for those of us who wish to ignore your desperate predicament. In every way, those guys are just doing prisoners as a whole harm - and doing Chuck Ryan a service by keeping you down so he doesn't have to. They keep his guards in line, too.
On that note, I encourage folks to check out the ADC's website for more information about how our tax dollars are being spent fostering even more criminal activity - and destroying the lives that might be salvaged -behind bars. Here are their collected reports and statistics. The Corrections at a Glance monthly briefs are especially interesting for what they show the ADC isn't doing for the 75% of prisoners these days who come in with drug problems. Even the drunks aren't getting treatment. Given the physical state of most of the prison system, it kind of makes you wonder where all that money has been going...