Arizona Senate panel recommends Gov. Katie Hobbs' nominee for Corrections director

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Ryan Thornell, Gov. Katie Hobbs’ nominee to lead the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, avoided any contentious exchanges and easily passed his confirmation hearing on Tuesday before a Senate committee.

Thornell answered a variety of sometimes pointed questions about the death penalty, private prisons, appropriate use of force and his experience from lawmakers. He appeared prepared for all the questions he received.

Committee members thanked him for his candor before they unanimously recommended that the full Senate approve his nomination, with yes votes coming from Sens. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek; T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge; Lela Alston, D-Phoenix; Eva Burch, D-Mesa; and John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who was filling in on the committee for Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye.

Thornell comes to Arizona from Maine, where he served as a deputy commissioner for the Department of Corrections. He worked in South Dakota before that.

In response to questions from Alston, Thornell said he supports the death penalty. She asked him about the state failing to execute convicted murderer Aaron Gunches earlier this year before the execution warrant expired.

"I am not opposed to the death penalty," he said, adding later that state is now ready to resume executions, if directed.

Thornell said that when he took office in January, the department had too many vacancies in key roles under the new administration to carry out the execution.

“I was not confident I could deliver an execution safely, soundly and practically as required by the department order and as required by the law,” Thornell testified.

He said the department has been prepared since May 5 to carry out an execution should a warrant for one be issued. The only remaining matter would be the compounding of the execution drugs because they have a limited shelf life, he said.

Hoffman also asked about the Gunches case and told Thornell that he would expect as the director, he would execute a prisoner if told to do so by the courts even if the governor directed him otherwise.

“We want people who follow the law,” Hoffman said.

Nominee says contract prisons needed

Alston asked Thornell how he felt about contract prisons, which she called one of her “pet peeves.”

Private prison contracts have come under scrutiny because of their cost and the fact there are open beds in state facilities.

Thornell said he supports private prisons.

“If we were to close private prisons today it would drastically, significantly impact the department’s ability to safely and securely house our inmate population," he said.

He explained that portions of the state prisons are in disrepair and without private prisons, the state would have to move prisoners to those facilities that need upgrades and that would not be safe. Also, the state doesn’t have the staff to immediately end the use of private prisons, he said.

“It would put us in a position I would not want to imagine,” he said.

Along those lines, Thornell said he would like to spend money upgrading the facilities and resources available to prison workers to do their jobs. He testified Tuesday that he plans to spend $2 million to study what's needed to modernize the aging state prisons.

Lawmaker discusses 'coddling' inmates versus punishment

Hoffman asked Thornell about what the public perceives as “coddling” inmates and providing them with amenities like televisions, Internet access, hobbies and other activities.

“It seems they want our prison system to serve more as a punishment rather than what they perceived as maybe a daycare,” Hoffman said.

Thornell responded that prison care is a “balance.”

“I understand the corrections system serves a role, and part of that role is punishment,” Thornell said. “There is an expectation from whatever percentage of the public that when they come into a prison they will not be coddled, given all of the amenities and so forth.”

He continued: “That has to be balanced with the same expectation that we release people back into the community and they don’t come back into the prison system. In order for that to happen, we need to take some steps, some measures to make sure we are providing them opportunity to leave our prison system better than when they came in.”

That requires giving access to things like substance abuse treatment and medication, he said.

Thornell will face variety of challenges

Not only is Arizona's Corrections Department substantially larger than Maine's, but it has serious issues to address as well.

Thornell will inherit a host of troubles left by his predecessors at the department, which employs 10,000 people and houses 24,000 prisoners (not including additional contract prisons) on an annual general fund budget of about $1.5 billion.

A year ago, a federal judge found Arizona’s prison health care system and conditions of confinement to be unconstitutional.

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Former Director Charles Ryan retired after a corrections officer leaked videos to the press showing failed security systems had led to unsafe conditions in state prisons.

After that, Director David Shinn continued to face accusations of improper treatment of prisoners and low staffing levels. His successor was aware of the scope of his task.

“I’ve come to Arizona eyes wide open about the challenges ahead,” Thornell said after the vote in an interview with The Arizona Republic. “Today really solidified the excitement that I have to tackle the issues and to move the agency forward.”

His nomination now goes to the full Senate for confirmation.

He said he has been excited to learn that a sizeable portion of the staff is also eager to improve the department.

“This first year, the goal is just to establish a good foundation for corrections and to support staff and to help staff become reinvigorated about the work they are doing,” he said.

Representatives of the Arizona Democracy Resource Center, Arizona Sheriff’s Association, Arizona Faith Network and Arouet Foundation spoke at the hearing in support of his confirmation. An official from Middle Ground Prison Reform said the group was neutral on the appointment but expressed her positive reaction to Thornell's presentation and tenure so far.

None spoke in opposition.

Carlos Garcia, the president of the Corrections Officers Union, criticized Thornell on a politics talk show after his selection by Hobbs. Garcia attended the first portion of Tuesday's hearing but didn't speak.

At one point, as Thornell discussed how he did not intend to simply apply practices from Maine to Arizona because the states are unique, Hoffman nodded in agreement.

He said staff has brought a variety of ideas to him on how to improve the department.

“They just want to have a voice in the process,” he said of corrections workers. “They want to be acknowledged and heard.”

“Serving as the director here in Arizona appealed to me because it offered the greatest opportunity for my transformational leadership skills,” he said. “Being selected to serve here in Arizona is truly an honor.”

He has close to 20 years experience and discussed starting in the industry as a corrections officer in South Dakota at the age of 19.

“I learned firsthand the importance of protecting public safety," he said. "I also learned other things in those early years, including how the correctional system as a whole can serve the public, protect victims’ rights and motivate people to rehabilitate themselves.”

He said his approach to corrections is supporting staff with resources, engagement, development opportunities and offering rehabilitation opportunities to inmates. “When the work of corrections is done from this lens, it also costs less,” he said.

It’s taken Hobbs five months just to get three of her dozens of nominees confirmed by the Senate. Two others were recommended but are awaiting confirmation. Meanwhile, her pick for the Department of Health Services was rejected and her choice for Registrar of Contractors was recommended for rejection.

Meanwhile, departments such as Housing and Gaming remain in limbo as the state faces a variety of pressing matters.Republic reporter Jimmy Jenkins contributed to this article.

Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Ryan Thornell, Hobbs pick for Corrections chief, passes Senate hearing