It’s been a bad month for the Arizona state Department of Corrections. According to the Associated Press, separate investigations into two inmate suicides at Arizona prisons have led to the firing of 13 corrections officers and sergeants. Six others have been “disciplined”. That’s a whole lot of fallout … but why?
According to information that is still coming out, various correctional officers and other employees failed to conduct security checks and perform other duties. Neglect, ethics violations, and duty failures were also reported. But it gets worse, reports have also surfaced that records were falsified, and misconduct was either not reported or investigated.
From a PR perspective, while this case involves specific employees of a specific prison system, it reflects poorly on the entire Arizona DOC and the state as a whole. That creates a widespread and nuanced public relations crisis across multiple departments. Heads will roll, and that’s just the beginning.
In any situation like this, the general public will demand accountability. That may or may not stop with the firings and discipline of the various DOC officers and employees. It might extend to elected or appointed officials further up the food chain. That is if this issue continues to stay in the headlines for extended periods.
On a national scale, the state and those in danger are benefitting from a hotly contested presidential election stealing most, if not all, of the airtime and column inches. However, at a local and state level, the problems are just beginning. Everyone from activist groups to prison reform organizations will look at this case as a touchstone, an opportunity to drum up support for their cause.
This sort of multilayered administrative failure can be a very attractive situation for those seeking to advance various agendas critical of both the police in general and the prison system in particular. When people are dead, and officers apparently created a situation that allows it, the environment is ripe for hyperbole and broad brush statements.
State, local, and law enforcement PR specialists must understand this and act quickly, or they risk losing control of this narrative and becoming the go-to example of every problem or issue these systems face.