Where's Dora?

Former St. Louis corrections chief Dora Schriro has moved on to a more high-profile controversy

Dora Schriro, erstwhile head of city corrections in St. Louis, is once again in the center of controversy, this time as director of state prisons in Arizona, where inmates recently surrendered after a hostage crisis that lasted fifteen days. She's also facing a legal setback here in St. Louis, where a federal judge has refused to admit sworn testimony from Schriro in a lawsuit brought by an inmate. The judge says Schriro and other corrections officials can't be trusted to tell the truth because they had previously given misleading statements under oath.

In a February 3 ruling denying the city's motion to dismiss the inmate's suit, U.S. District Court Judge Carol Jackson said sworn statements from the defendants suffered from "demonstrated unreliability." In the nine-page ruling, Jackson blasted corrections officials, including Schriro, saying, "[I]t is beyond dispute that the defendants' affidavits contain false statements" and that "some of the defendants chose to play fast and loose with the truth." The judge also ordered Schriro and the other defendants to pay legal fees the inmate incurred seeking evidence that turned up missing in the wake of the prison riot that sparked the lawsuit.

In Arizona, meanwhile, Schriro faces an investigation ordered by state lawmakers to determine whether her response to the recent hostage crisis was appropriate.

Controversy has followed former St. Louis corrections 
chief Dora Schriro all the way to Arizona.
Jennifer Silverberg
Controversy has followed former St. Louis corrections chief Dora Schriro all the way to Arizona.

Schriro took charge six hours after the longest prison standoff in U.S. history began on January 18, when inmates Steven Coy and Ricky Wassenaar used handmade knives to seize control of the kitchen at Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis near Phoenix and then took over a tower, where they held two guards hostage. One of the guards, Jason Auch, was released after eight days. The other, Lois Fraley, was not freed until the inmates surrendered February 1.

Schriro assumed command even though a state Department of Public Safety SWAT team was in place for about four hours before she arrived, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections. She then directed the state response, which included prolonged negotiations instead of sending in tactical teams. Before the inmates surrendered in exchange for a promise of transfers to out-of-state prisons near their homes, Schriro sent them pizzas, steaks, baked potatoes, cigarettes and beer, while the inmates appear to have handed over small amounts of ammunition and a weapon or two.

Schriro and Governor Janet Napolitano have congratulated themselves and state employees for ending the siege with no blood spilled. Others, including tactical experts who devised a plan they thought would end the standoff without injuring the hostages, have been more critical, particularly since the state revealed that Fraley was raped by Coy during the standoff.

Schriro, who had made it clear there would be no tactical response, also held the media at bay during the crisis, preventing the press from entering the prison grounds and refusing to reveal the names of the inmates. Thus, the corrections director knew, but the public didn't, that Coy, who was serving a 175-year sentence for aggravated assault and rape, had already sexually assaulted a prison kitchen worker before joining his partner in the guard tower.

Most of the police tactical personnel on site at the standoff desperately wanted orders to shoot the inmates. Later, SWAT teams had a plan in place to raid the tower using explosives and high-powered rifles capable of penetrating the structure's bulletproof glass. They believed they could take the tower without injuring the hostages.

"It was disgusting, sickening, to be waiting through twelve-hour shifts and wondering what was going on and knowing what was probably happening to that woman," says one tactical expert who was involved in the standoff.

The Democratic governor has called in national corrections experts and law-enforcement officials to help Schriro's staff review the crisis and decide whether deeper troubles in the prison system, including staffing, pay and training issues, may have played a role. Napolitano (who also was involved in the handling of the hostage situation, according to documents released by her office) has named several review panels, many of whose members are state employees who, in essence, work for her. An umbrella panel that will oversee other reviews consists of the governor's top political appointee, her chief of staff Dennis Burke; former state attorney general Grant Woods, a Republican; and Herb Guenther, Napolitano's director of the Department of Water Resources and a former Democratic state senator.

That's not good enough for state lawmakers, who have yet to confirm Schriro's appointment to her post made by the governor more than eight months ago. The Republican-dominated legislature has asked one of Napolitano's political foes, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, to conduct a review and report back to a bipartisan legislative panel. (Romley, a Republican, has indicated he'll likely run for governor in 2006.) Schriro, who must be confirmed by June, has already clashed with state lawmakers over the state's overcrowded and underfunded corrections system. A special legislative session last fall ended with Republicans pushing through a proposal to privatize some prisons, a plan opposed by Napolitano and Schriro. Last week Romley took control of the criminal investigation from Schriro's department, filing numerous charges against the two inmates. He also is refusing to acknowledge the deal to ship the inmates out of Arizona and into the federal prison system.

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