John Fabricius was incarcerated in the Arizona state prison system from 2005 to 2018, and the conditions he experienced appalled him.
“We started seeing really heinous issues manifest related to health care,” says Fabricius, now 54, who served his time in a variety of facilities run both privately and by the state’s Department of Corrections. During his sentence, he earned a paralegal degree and soon became the go-to resource for incarcerated people who wished to file grievances.
In one such case, a man was forced to wade through nearly a year of bureaucracy to have a detached retina repaired. As a result of the delay, his surgery was unsuccessful and he lost his eye. In another case, a Vietnam War veteran with breathing problems waited a year to have part of his lung removed. Later, a specialist discovered that his medical issues were the result of rheumatoid arthritis: His surgery had been unnecessary.
“It felt like society had just completely thrown us away on this island of despair and lawlessness,” Fabricius said. “I had this feeling of frustration, of anger, of distrust of authority and our legal system.”
Slow and inattentive medical care is not the only problem in Arizona’s prison system, which is home to around 33,800 incarcerated people and employs 9,550 staff members. Watchdog groups in the state have reported rodent infestations, toxic water quality, lack of air conditioning during summer heat waves, and pervasive violence among staff and incarcerated people. Broken locks in one facility went unrepaired for months, leading to death and injury. Many other prison systems across the United States face similar issues, and advocates have long argued that independent prison oversight is necessary in order to preserve the safety of staff and incarcerated people alike.
“There’s a discrepancy between what is happening and the sanitized version the Department of Corrections gives,” says Claire Tate, an independent advocate for incarcerated people whose husband has been in the Arizona prison system since 2017.
There’s a discrepancy between what is happening and the sanitized version the Department of Corrections gives.Claire Tate independent advocate for incarcerated people
Upon becoming governor of Arizona in January 2023, Katie Hobbs moved quickly to address the issue, signing an executive order to create an independent prison oversight commission among other measures. Advocates have applauded the swift progress.
“Oversight is really important, not just to keep incarcerated people and their families safe, but also for corrections staff, who need a safe work environment,” says Molly Gill, vice president of policy at Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “It’s one of those rare win-win issues that’s about everybody being safer together.”
‘The Darkest Places in America’
Prisons are “some of the darkest places in America,” Gill says, and they need oversight, whether or not there are obvious problems. Typically, they are located far from city centers, making access for families, lawyers, and other interested parties difficult. Lawmakers, the media, and the public rarely have insight into the workings of correctional facilities, and most people have little idea of the problems inside. Yet their cost to taxpayers is enormous: Arizona’s corrections budget, for example, is more than $1.5 billion annually.
Gov. Hobbs’s executive order establishes several important new provisions. Perhaps most critically, the prison oversight commission will not only include members of the state Senate and House of Representatives, but also an advocate for incarcerated people, a professional with a background in training and rehabilitation programs, previously incarcerated men and women, a family member of an incarcerated person, a physician, a mental or behavioral health professional, and a corrections staff or union member.
annual budget for Arizona corrections
“The commission membership is reflective of people who are directly impacted by incarceration, who know the most about what prison is like and what the problems are,” Gill explains.
Under the order, the Department of Corrections must allow the commission to inspect prison facilities and records and talk with staff and incarcerated people. The commission will monitor such features as health care, cleanliness, security, staffing, program access, and the grievance process. In November of this year, the commission will issue a preliminary report with findings and recommendations.
“We believe this will improve transparency and accountability in the corrections system in Arizona,” says Destiny Carter, advocacy manager at Arnold Ventures, which has supported oversight in Arizona. “Data collection is incredibly important. The system needs to identify what information is currently being collected, what new information should be collected, and what’s going on in the prisons overall.”
In Arizona, prison oversight is a bipartisan issue, and in the recent past policymakers came close to establishing an independent commission. For two years running, the state legislature considered a prison oversight bill that FAMM helped draft. Republican State Rep. Walt Blackmon was its primary sponsor and champion, and his bill passed the House of Representatives. But it failed to pass the Senate and reach the governor’s desk.
Advocates hope that using an executive order to establish the commission will spur policymakers in the legislature to enact further reforms. “The benefit of setting up a commission is that you can get the process of oversight started,” Gill says. “You can show people how it works, produce some good outcomes, and convince people at the legislature that this is worth the time and the investment.”
In particular, the commission could be a step toward passing further state legislation on prison oversight, advocates say.
“I’m really excited that this is something the governor announced in her first month in office,” says Lauren Krisai, deputy director of the Justice Action Network, a national bipartisan organization that advocates for criminal justice reforms in Arizona, including a 2022 bill that requires an annual audit of the Department of Corrections’ compliance with certain reporting requirements. “It shows a commitment to identifying the problems, and it will allow us to figure out what legislative fixes we should be pushing in the coming year.”
People directly impacted by the state’s prison system share advocates’ optimism.
“I think it’s wonderful that this executive order was created,” Tate says. “The establishment of the commission shows that the governor is serious about this issue.”
‘We Demonstrate the Value of an Office Like This’
By creating an independent prison oversight body, Arizona is following in the footsteps of several other states. Washington, in particular, has been the gold standard for prison oversight nationwide. The Office of the Corrections Ombuds, created by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2018, has unfettered access to the state’s prison facilities. The office also receives complaints directly by mail, as well as through a confidential, no-cost hotline available to all incarcerated people, including those in solitary confinement. These communications are not reviewed by the state’s Department of Corrections.
Our goal is to resolve conflicts as quickly and equitably as possible but it’s also to get lasting outcomes.Caitlin Robertson director of Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds
The office is currently compiling data on systemic problems across facilities to bring to the legislature and address.
New Jersey is also home to a strong independent Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson. In 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy expanded the existing office after reports of major abuses in the state’s prison system.
“We now have access to any person in any room of any prison at any time, announced or unannounced,” says Terry Schuster, the New Jersey corrections ombudsperson. “We can subpoena documents if they’re not handed over voluntarily. We can compel testimony under oath for investigations. We have a mandate to do inspections of the facilities and systemic monitoring of issues like safety, access to loved ones, and health care.”
The office has hired more staff and currently fields around 1,000 contacts per month from incarcerated people, many about missing property, health care access, or legal issues. It also helps loved ones of incarcerated people, and Schuster travels across New Jersey to listen to families’ concerns.
Schuster has been a vocal supporter of states like Arizona as they consider establishing prison oversight bodies. In January, he provided testimony to the Virginia legislature in support of a bill to create a similar entity.
“We demonstrate the value of an office like this,” says Schuster. “If you spend 0.2% of your corrections budget on oversight, you get this massive value.”
Such provisions answer the demands of many who have spent time incarcerated, their families, and corrections staff. Fabricius, who started Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections after his release and has worked in recent years to advance an oversight bill in the state legislature, is hopeful about the progress that the new executive order represents.
“I’m extremely encouraged,” he says. “I think that this might be the combination that allows us to get the information out to the public about the failures of the Department of Corrections and take a serious look at remediating it, so that it stops being something that diminishes public safety and start being a net positive for the custodial environment of human beings.”