Arizona is retooling its overcrowded prison system to emphasize useful activities for inmates, ranging from education to helping crime victims, says state corrections director Dora Schriro. The state has created what Schriro calls a “parallel universe” for inmates that attempts to replicate behind prison walls what life should be like for prisoners once they are released. She estimated that 96 percent of the state’s 37,000 inmates some day would complete their terms and return to the community. Schriro spoke yesterday in Phoenix to a panel sponsored by Criminal Justice Journalists at the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference.
There already are some indicators of the progam’s success. About 10,000 inmates have earned GED degrees in recent years. The prison system now accounts for about one-third of the annual Arizona GED total. In a “restorative justice” program, inmates have raised $750,000 in three years to benefit organizations that help crime victims. Violence within prisons has decreased since the programs began, Schriro said. Prison population increases are coming faster than the state legislature has provided funding for the corrections department, however. Schriro said the total would exceed 40,000 in the next few years, partly because Arizona requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.