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Career federal employee is named Arizona's new prisons chief

Career federal employee is named Arizona's new prisons chief

  • Updated

David Shinn

PHOENIX — The new head of the state Department of Corrections is a career employee of the federal Bureau of Prisons, where last year he instituted a policy that restricted access to books by inmates.

On Monday, Gov. Doug Ducey tapped David Shinn to take over the $1-billion-a-year system that has a staff of 8,500 that houses nearly 34,000 inmates and oversees an additional 8,200 inmates in private prisons.

Shinn is the assistant director of the Program Review Division for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

His official biography for that agency said he oversees a wide variety of areas, including guiding managers in the assessment of operations, assisting management in the strategic planning process, and coordinating and monitoring oversight activities of auditors. In that last role, according to the governor’s office, he oversaw more than 575 audits annually.

But it was his position before that, as complex warden at the federal prison at Victorville, California, that generated some protest and publicity.

Last year, in that position, Shinn implemented a policy that prohibited inmates from obtaining books from a publisher, bookstore, book club, friends or family through the mail.

The order said it was done to “increase the safety and security of staff and inmates.”

Instead, inmates were told they would have to submit an electronic request, specifying not the just book title, author and edition but the unique International Standard Book number. The staff then would respond with a book price — retail plus a 30% markup, plus shipping.

Mailings were restricted to no more than five soft-cover books, with that number being the absolute maximum any inmate could possess “to prevent the materials from becoming sanitation, security and/or a housekeeping hazard.”

Shinn, in the memo, said this was in response to “multiple occurrences involving illicit drugs.”

The change drew immediate fire.

“This policy is a discriminatory and destructive attack on access to literature and other reading and educational materials for thousands of people in prison, shutting them off from works that can reduce recidivism and better connect them to the outside world,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs for PEN America, a charitable organization that includes writers, editors, publishers and other writing professionals.

In the press release last year after the policy was implemented, Lopez said it forces inmates “to pay potentially exorbitant prices for books they could receive for free from friends, family or charities.” And she said that effectively makes it impossible for some inmates to access books not available in prison libraries.

Lopez told Capitol Media Services that the policy implemented at Victorville and one other federal prison in California was rescinded after public pressure from her organization and others.

Ducey’s office would not make Shinn available nor provide contact information. Instead, gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak provided a prepared statement, saying Ducey was “aware” before he appointed Shinn about the policy limiting access to books.

“This was a policy geared towards mitigating any narcotics and illegal contraband from entering the prisons,” Ptak said. “He will prioritize security for everyone in our prisons while continuing Arizona’s focus on preparing inmates for success after serving their time.”

Shinn replaces Charles Ryan, who retired at the end of September.

That resignation came as a report on the agency prepared by two former Arizona Supreme Court justices concluding that Ryan was “surprisingly uninformed” about what was going on in the Department of Corrections, including locks that did not work and inmates leaving their cells and starting fights and fires. The justices said Ryan was cut off from what was happening by being surrounded by “yes” men.

Ducey said at the time he wanted to “change the culture” at the agency with a new director.

In a prepared statement announcing Shinn’s appointment, the governor said his goal was to find someone with extensive corrections experience, a record of solving problems and getting results, and a passion for public service.

“David Shinn is that leader,” Ducey said.

The appointment drew praise from Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, which has been at the forefront of urging reforms in Arizona’s prison system and had previously called for Ryan to be fired.

“I don’t know a thing about the guy,” Isaacs told Capitol Media Services.

“What I can say is it’s encouraging that the governor saw fit to hire outside the department,” she said. “That hopefully signals that he is willing to bring in someone who’s going to make some significant changes.”

Shinn’s Bureau of Prisons bio says he started with that agency in 1991 as a legal technician at a San Diego correctional facility. He also was a corrections officer in New Jersey, leading to “positions of increasing responsibility,” including to Victorville and, in August 2018, his current position in the program review division.

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