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Arizona DOC Publishes, Then Rescinds, Prison Tour Policy that Excluded Public Officials and Media

by Matt Clarke

The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) generated a media storm when, on July 22, 2019, it published a draft of a new department order that excluded elected officials and the news media from a list of people eligible for tours of state prisons.

The draft order was to supersede a previous order that specifically authorized tours for “elected officials and their staff” and “news media staff.” It was to go into effect on August 22, 2019, but was removed from the ADC’s website just a day after being posted.

“In a time when it’s been made clear that the executive branch is not willing to hold the Department of Corrections and Director Charles Ryan responsible, and accountable, it really defaults to the media and the Legislative Branch,” said state Rep. Athena Salman, who called the changes in the policy “outrageous” and noted that she and a group of lawmakers already had a prison tour scheduled for the end of August.

“Now that there is a lot of pressure coming from the media and the Legislature, the idea that the prisons then think that they can restrict access and make it more difficult for elected officials and journalists to investigate – that is just completely reckless,” she added.

“The department shouldn’t expect to receive its billion dollar budget from lawmakers if it’s not willing to let them in to see how that money is being spent,” said Molly Gill, vice president of policy at FAMM, a sentencing reform group that has encouraged state lawmakers to visit prisons with its #VisitAPrison campaign. “A policy change like this shows why lawmakers need to visit prisons more often and provide more oversight, not less,” Gill continued. “No government actor getting one billion dollars of taxpayer money each year is entitled to operate a black box, especially when human lives are at stake.”

“I hope the new policy’s omission of the news media and elected officials is an oversight that will be corrected immediately,” stated attorney Dan Barr, who specializes in First Amendment law. “The events of the last few years regarding abysmal health care provided in the prisons, the absence of working locks on prison doors, and chronic understaffing show that the Arizona prison system needs far more attention, not less, from the news media and elected officials.”

ADC spokesman Andrew Wilder called the omission of elected officials from the draft order “unintentional.” He went on to explain how it had been removed from the order as part of a review schedule intended to delete duplicate language to avoid confusion.

He said the department orders addressing tours for public officials and the news media were in a separate, stand-alone policy unaffected by the revision. Nonetheless, the new version of the prison tour policy (DO #202) had been rescinded so it could be revised to include elected officials and their staff as well as members of the media.

Several months before the controversy surrounding the draft prison tour policy, Warden Glenn Pacheco at ASPC-Douglas was criticized for promoting a public tour of the prison complex in March 2019. According to a local paper, Pacheco said, “Come and experience a day behind the razor wire and enjoy a free meal, a free bus tour, and a prison unit tour,” adding, “This is a one-day event and is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you and your family to experience.”

Visitors would reportedly visit an unused housing unit and eat burgers and hot dogs in a former prison dining room while listening to “jailhouse rock and roll music.”

The ACLU of Arizona condemned the warden’s comments, noting that the ADC was under federal court oversight for failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners, and state prisons had high levels of violence – issues unlikely to be addressed during the dog-and-pony-show public tour. The organization called Pacheco’s statements “disgusting” and “unconscionable.”

ADC spokesperson Wilder countered by calling the ACLU’s criticism “feigned.”

“The ACLU demands (and regularly receives) its own tours of Arizona prisons, so it should applaud the agency’s transparency in welcoming the community into the prison to learn firsthand about modern corrections,” Wilder stated. “We want the public to see our positive inmate programs and active efforts to reduce recidivism.”

While that may be a worthy goal, it does not change the fact that providing a public tour of a state prison that does not address the realities of prison life is analogous to inviting people to observe prisoners as if they were animals in a zoo. 

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Sources: kjzz.org, Phoenix New Times