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Sarah Gassen: Fixing AZ prison system from the inside

Sarah Gassen: Fixing AZ prison system from the inside

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Something big happened in dozens of small conversations Thursday morning in the Whetstone Unit of the Arizona Department of Corrections prison on Tucson’s far east side.

In a visitation room decorated with murals depicting the history of flight, space exploration, Frida Kahlo, American industrialism and the military, groups of people sat on plastic chairs around plastic tables, and talked.

It was a community meeting held by Arizona Town Hall, an organization that focuses on one significant issue each year and brings together experts, policy makers and residents.

Their 2018 topic is Criminal Justice in Arizona. They’re holding gatherings around the state.

Who better to ask than the people who know the system best, from the inside?

About 40 men from the prison were joined by about 40 community members who came to learn from them.

It was the first of two community meetings planned within an Arizona prison — something corrections officials said hadn’t happened in this way, on this scale, before.

Arizona Department of Corrections incarcerates 42,141 men and women in its prison system, as of August. Just over 8,200 inmates reside in private prisons.

According to a report by Arizona State University researchers, put out by Arizona Town Hall, Arizona had the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, as of December 2015 (781 per 100,000 adults).

According to the study, “approximately half of all of the people currently incarcerated in Arizona have served a prior term in prison.”

Gov. Doug Ducey has made reducing recidivism — recommitting crimes and returning to prison — a priority.

The men were selected because they’re part of a recovery support specialist training program, they’re in the Second Chance program preparing for release, or because of their “prosocial behavior,” said Deputy Warden Cathryn Squires.

Corrections Director Charles L. Ryan participated in the conversation, too, taking notes of what inmates suggested. Participants hashed out what should be the “principal goals for Arizona’s criminal justice system,” and how we can improve the system before, and after, a person is incarcerated.

Most people in prison will be released, and helping them return to the community is crucial for their success — which makes it crucial for all of us.

The men talked about what brought them to prison —not the crime, but broader factors that shape a life: lack of education, substance abuse, mental health problems, unstable housing, unemployment, dysfunctional and broken families, isolation.

Daniel Negrete said signs of mental illness and drug or alcohol abuse should be flagged, and addressed, as early as junior high.

Jayme Takala nodded. “That would have helped me,” he said.

Ryan, the DOC director, said his wife taught school for 40 years and told him she could identify fifth-graders who would most likely end up in prison.

“When you said that teachers could predict students — that hit me. That was me,” said Ruben Garcia. “When you said that, it felt like a nail in the coffin.”

Programs inside the prison should be open to more people, and participation not determined by what Jonathan Antonucci called the “bureaucratic algorithm” that offers more opportunities to inmates with higher risk factors. He teaches a voluntary public speaking course for fellow inmates, complete with homework assignments, that’s in its third offering.

Spending money where it will help the most makes sense, they said. “This is using taxpayer money — and for those of us who are in orange, that’s our families’ money,” said Edwin Pellecier.

The men expressed gratitude for the chance to share their experiences — to be asked.

“This is the first time in some years I’ve felt a part of a community,” Isiah Gamez said. “Thank you for coming and making us feel we’re human, too.”

Isiah is scheduled to leave prison later this week.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen is the Editorial Page editor of the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at

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