Arizona State Representative tells NewsBreak that Eyman prison tour was a sanitized "set-up"

Jeremy Beren

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By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Florence, Ariz.) — One state lawmaker who toured a state prison in Pinal County last week believes the five-hour walkthrough did not provide a clear picture of the conditions inside.

The Arizona Republic exposed security and staffing issues rife in the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry (ADCRR) that prompted Reps. Melody Hernandez (D), Kelli Butler (D) and Mitzi Epstein (D) to tour the Browning and SMU1 units at Florence’s Eyman prison last Wednesday.

Prisoners with mental illnesses, and those deemed to require strict security, are held in these units.

"It's one thing to design a pathway through the prison for us to see everything we requested to see,” Hernandez told NewsBreak via phone. “It's another thing to have what seemed like people set up with their narratives ready to go.”

In a statement provided to NewsBreak following publication, the ADCRR did not directly address Hernandez's contention that the Eyman tour was sanitized, but a spokesperson thanked the lawmakers for the "opportunity to discuss the challenges our hardworking staff face each day."

“Thanks for the raise”

Arizona State Prison Complex - Eyman houses more than 5,800 prisoners, according to a Sept. 2 count. Opened in 1991, it is one of Arizona's 10 state prison facilities and one of two in the Pinal County seat of Florence.

Department of Corrections Director David Shinn, who led the tour, has overseen significant reductions to state prison staff since he started in the role three years ago. Eyman alone is short by an estimated 700 correctional officers.

During his tenure, Shinn has also defended the use of cheap prison labor as well as a privatized prison healthcare system that a U.S. District Judge later found unconstitutional.

Hernandez explained that her focus Wednesday centered on questioning Shinn and speaking to correctional officers posted in the units, which are further divided into "pods" that hold around 10 people.

When they entered, Hernandez said dozens of corrections officers quickly greeted and thanked the lawmakers for the additional funding Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law in January.

"A correctional officer would look at us and say, 'Thank you so much for the 20% pay raise,' and then keep walking," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said Shinn would point out a corrections officer and ask if they had anything to share with the lawmakers.

"These people were over the moon to meet us,” Hernandez said. “I'm sure their stories are true, but finding those officers in order for them to come and share those stories specifically with us ... You don't want to tell your director, 'No.'"

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An overhead view of ASPC-Eyman.Prison Insight/Flickr

"This is such a set-up"

Hernandez said she tried to peer into other pods or rooms in the vicinity of the tour's planned stops. In one instance, she looked into a room within Browning containing what looked like de-escalation equipment.

"I asked Director Shinn what was in there. He said it was equipment corrections officers may have to use to de-escalate violent situations,” Hernandez said. “They wouldn't let me see the room."

Hernandez did not see many guards around or incarcerated people out of their cells in the first Browning pod she visited. She did not see an infirmary, either, and was surprised to learn "ambulatory stations" around the sprawling complex take the place of a designated medical center.

In the first pod, Eyman’s behavioral health specialists introduced one man who was looking out through the bars of his cell.

"He said, 'Yes, I would love to tell you about how they helped treat my PTSD.' And I thought, 'Oh, my God,'" Hernandez said. "At that point, I thought 'This is such a set-up.'"

Hernandez said Shinn initially denied her attempt to see the pod next door as it was "not on the tour." But Shinn and corrections officers eventually relented. Hernandez said the director told her, "We have nothing to hide."

"This pod was a completely different story," she said. "There were incarcerated people walking around everywhere (and) there were a ton of corrections officers trying to keep them orderly ... It was loud, it was chaotic, it looked a lot messier than the other one."

When one inmate began screaming, Hernandez — who is also a paramedic — took the opportunity to see Eyman's de-escalation techniques for herself.

"They were trying to block my view," she said. "The corrections officers kept looking at me (after being allowed to observe). They kept trying really hard to calm the incarcerated person down, and they did. No other force was used."

Time for "the full picture"

After the walkthrough, Hernandez told Shinn that lawmakers "need to see the bad parts too" in order to fix conditions inside Arizona's prisons.

"I'm really encouraging Director Shinn and (the ADCRR) to give us the full picture so we know what we're up against," she said.

Hernandez said she is convinced Shinn wants to be an “equal partner” in shaping a comprehensive, treatment-based path for incarcerated people. But the representative thinks he needs to "define his vision in detail" to lay the groundwork for change at the legislative level.

"Incarcerated people are there to be rehabilitated,” she said. “I'm taking Director Shinn at his word when he says that's his goal."

When asked for comment on the future of treatment-based rehabilitation within state prisons, an ADCRR spokesperson said the department "look(s) forward to continued conversation surrounding innovation and expansion of our rehabilitative programs, additional treatment programs, and staffing."

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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