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Fri, Oct. 18

Prisons chief: $59 million more needed to deal with ‘critical public safety crisis’

Rep. Walt Blackman lays out his goals for reducing prison population last month. Arizona Department of Corrections Chief Charles Ryan says he needs at least another $59 million to deal with what he calls a “public safety crisis.” (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

Rep. Walt Blackman lays out his goals for reducing prison population last month. Arizona Department of Corrections Chief Charles Ryan says he needs at least another $59 million to deal with what he calls a “public safety crisis.” (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

PHOENIX – Gov. Doug Ducey won’t commit to ask the Legislature for all the dollars his departing head of the state prison system says are necessary to deal with the “critical public safety crisis."

In a letter to the governor, Charles Ryan said he needs at least another $59 million this coming budget year on top of the current nearly $1.2 billion budget for the Department of Corrections. That includes $22 million for locks, fire and air conditioning systems at the Lewis prison in Buckeye and the Yuma facility and another $18.5 million for repairs through the whole prison system.

And on top of that, there’s a yet-to-be determined cost for another round of salary hikes for corrections officers, even after the 10% raise that kicked in on July 1.

Without that, Ryan said, the staffing situation in the prison system that houses more than 40,000 inmates will not improve, with close to one out of every five positions being unfilled at the beginning of this budget year. And that, said Ryan, “is a crisis situation that compromises the secure and safe operations of prisons.’’

But Ducey, who demanded and got an investigation into the prison system – and particularly the cell doors that don’t lock – is not ready to commit to accede to Ryan’s request.

Gubernatorial spokesman Patrick Ptak said his boss believes that staffing is “critically important,’’ saying that’s why Ducey sought that 10% increase.

Ryan, for his part, called that increase “a start.’’ But he said it still doesn’t make the salaries he can pay competitive with the sheriff’s departments in Maricopa and Pima counties or with Border Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Prisons or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Arizona Department of Corrections has become a training ground for staff who terminate their employment ... for significantly more money at competitor agencies,’’ he told Ducey.

And Ryan put an even finer point on it.

“My letter is meant to ask for funds to address critical challenges that, if left unattended, will result in indefensible outcomes,’’ he said. That, in turn, puts the issue directly into Ducey’s lap, as he is the one who determines how much of what Ryan wants, in everything from salaries to repair costs, is sought from the Legislature.

But Ptak said Ducey is making no promises.

“All requests for next year’s budget will be reviewed with an eye toward a balanced budget that prioritizes public safety and public education,’’ he said.

The issue of the governor’s willingness to put Ryan’s proposal into the budget request he will send to the Legislature in January comes on the heels of an investigation he ordered into problems within the prison system.

That started with the fact that many of the locks at the Lewis Prison simply did not work, resulting in inmates scuffling with each other and corrections officers as well as starting fires.

But the report submitted in August by Rebecca White Berch and Ruth McGregor, both retired chief justices of the Arizona Supreme Court, warned of the implications of low salaries.

“The shortage of staff poses dangers to the corrections officers who often have to work without ready backup, and it predictably led to various problems,’’ the justices said. And they said that at least part of the problem originated with Ryan, saying the agency under his command had a “somewhat laissez faire attitude’’ about requesting or demanding money.

Ryan, whose last day on the job was Friday, said he was not about to repeat that mistake.

“While these remarks are referring to locks and security, the message was received and will be applied for both operational and capital needs,’’ Ryan wrote in his last budget request to the governor. He said this new budget request provides “a clearer message of funding needs and priorities in accordance with the justices’ report.’’

But Ptak said that won’t necessarily translate into the governor deciding that Ryan’s request should become his request.

“We are reviewing all budget submissions now,’’ he said when pressed on whether Ducey would accept responsibility for what happens if he trims what Ryan said the agency needs. But Ptak said the governor does recognize the importance of the issue.“Public safety is a top priority and we will make whatever investments are needed and necessary to protect inmates, correctional officers and the public,’’ Ptak said.

The public will get its first look in January on how much of Ryan’s request the governor adopts as his own.

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