Saying changes are needed, Gov. Janet Napolitano on Friday named the first woman ever to run the 33,000-inmate state prison system.
Napolitano said she chose Dora Schriro because she instituted an entirely new system of operating prisons during the eight years she ran the Missouri Department of Corrections.
The "parallel universe'' method requires inmates to live and work using the same rules — and having the same responsibilities — as they would have outside.
The governor said the problem with the current prison operation is that inmates go from having every aspect of their lives regulated on one day to being a free person the next. Napolitano said Schriro's parallel universe system makes that transition less traumatic, something she said is important since virtually everyone behind bars now eventually will get out.
Napolitano said the technique seems to work. She said that the recidivism rate in the Missouri prison system went from 34 percent when Schriro took over in 1993 — a figure close to that of Arizona — to close to 19 percent.
Schriro, in a phone interview with Capitol Media Services, said she wants the prison system to be more than a place of punishment.
"It also is an opportunity to prepare people to return to the community,'' she said.
Under the system, all of an inmate's time is used productively in preparation for release, Schriro said.
That means not just work inside the prison but also mandatory schooling for those without high school diplomas, and compulsory drug treatment for those with substance abuse problems.
"During that time, people not only learn how to report to work and take directions and see a task through to completion, but to get into the habit of getting their buns out of bed,'' she said.
"Historically, when you walk through most prison systems you see people laying around,'' Schriro said. "And that's really a bad habit you want to break if you expect people to go home and get a job and keep a job.''
There also is personal accountability, including forcing inmates to manage their time rather than having prison officials make those decisions. So if an inmate has to go to school, it is up to that person to figure out how to do things like go to the laundry for exchange linens or get a fresh uniform.
Schriro, 53, currently is corrections commissioner for St. Louis.
She will replace acting director Chuck Ryan, who had been among applicants for the directorship but notified Napolitano earlier this week that he will retire.
Schriro will earn $130,000 a year when she begins her job in Arizona next month.
Napolitano acknowledged that what Schriro can do is only part of the long-term solution to the state's overcrowded prison system.
She said the state needs to look more at alternatives to incarceration, especially intensive probation programs where judges can sentence criminals to having their lives regulated and monitored, possibly even electronically, rather than put them behind bars.
The governor said this is far more cost effective, at $5,000 a year versus $24,000 for incarceration.
Napolitano is counting on having a prisons chief who is amenable to such a change, something the former corrections director was not. Two years ago Terry Stewart got then-Gov. Jane Hull to quash a plan by Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, to put more money into intensive probation programs rather than build and staff more prisons.