The employees of the Arizona Department of Corrections are emerging from the shadows. They are unafraid, and are coming forward to share their stories of employee abuses at the hands of a dysfunctional corrections agency, led by embattled Director Charles L. Ryan. Director Ryan was appointed as the Arizona Department of Corrections Director in January 2009. The agency has been in a state of decline since he took command, and has reached a staggering level of incompetence. Journalist Stephen Lemons published a sobering article for the Phoenix New Times on September 16, 2015. It summarized the negligence of the Arizona Department of Corrections that led to sexual assaults, injuries, deaths, and the destruction of public property.
The latest Department scandal was exposed by Investigative Reporter Dave Biscobing from ABC News affiliate, ABC15 in Phoenix, Arizona. That story broke on April 25, 2019. It involved leaked Arizona Department of Corrections prison surveillance videos, and documents from the Lewis Prison Complex in Buckeye, Arizona. The documentation and other information obtained by Dave Biscobing clearly show that dozens of inmate cell doors do not lock in three prison units at that Complex. The doors have been broken for at least five years; the Executive Staff at DOC, including Director Ryan, know about the problem but failed to rectify it. High-risk custody level Inmates can open the cell doors and roam freely within their housing areas. Those security deficiencies resulted in several assaults on corrections staff by inmates, and one inmate death on June 6, 2018. Inmate Andrew McCormick was badly beaten by other inmates, and later died in the hospital from complications from the assault.
Investigative Reporter Dave Biscobing confronted Director Ryan at a public event with questions regarding the broken cell door locks. Director Ryan appeared nervous during the on-camera, impromptu interview with Biscobing. Mr. Ryan was aware of the broken locks and said that the Department receives about five million dollars per year in building renewal funds, but other projects have to be evaluated. He also said that locks cost money and it takes time to repair them. Dave Biscobing told him that officers were being ambushed, and injured by inmates, and one inmate was killed. Mr. Biscobing asked why the projects were not being prioritized. Mr. Ryan responded that they placed door pins in two cell blocks and instructed staff to secure inmates that managed to tamper with the locks. He said those inmates were placed in “tamper-proof” cell blocks and it greatly reduced the tampering of the pins. Mr. Biscobing produced evidence that contradicted Ryan’s statement, and was promptly interrupted, and ushered away from Mr. Ryan by one of the Director’s minions.
Talking Guns has learned that padlocks had previously been placed on many cell doors with broken locks at Lewis Prison as one solution to the problem. ABC15 Investigative Reporter Dave Biscobing released a follow-up story regarding an emergency visit that Director Ryan, and his retinue made to Lewis State Prison near Buckeye, Arizona on April 26, 2019. The Director arrived with a videographer and a team of maintenance workers. Mr. Biscobing’s sources said they were placing padlocks on cell doors. Apparently, they are placing additional padlocks on other cell doors with broken locks. This appears to be an attempt at damage control, and is obviously creating a safety issue for the inmate population should a fire occur in the institutions. Those inmate cells with padlocks have now become death-traps for the inmates that are housed in them.
There are several safety issues that still exist that the Department has known about for years, such as fire alarm systems in some of their prisons that don’t work. The Department circumvents fire codes by requiring officers to notate “fire checks” every half hour in the correctional log. According to several officers, that practice has become perfunctory, and meaningless. Officers are mandated by Department managers to engage in firefighting operations in the event of a cell block fire. The problem is that they have no training in those areas other than the use of a conventional fire extinguisher. They also do not have access to proper firefighting equipment. Several officers over the years have been exposed to toxic substances while attempting to extinguish flames and/or evacuate inmates. Department staff witnessed the decay of the inmate health care system and conditions of confinement under the leadership of Director Ryan. The inevitable lawsuit (Parsons versus Ryan) that resulted occurred on his watch. Parsons versus Ryan was a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the Prison Law Office, and co-counsel on behalf of more than 33,000 inmates in Arizona state prisons. It challenged the inmate health care system and conditions of confinement for maximum custody inmates.
On February 18, 2015, a federal court approved a settlement in the class-action suit. The settlement ordered the Arizona Department of Corrections to mend a broken health care system, beset by long-term, systemic issues that created numerous deaths and preventable injuries. There were many critical reforms ordered as a result of the settlement. Director Ryan once said that he “inherited” the health care problems when he became the Director of the Department in January 2009. If he had taken steps at the beginning of his administration to ameliorate those issues, many lives could have been saved, and that lawsuit could have been obviated. That landmark case has affected corrections departments across this Nation, creating many administrative, and financial burdens for agency leaders, and taxpayers. Arizona Department of Corrections employees continue to suffer the consequences of that legal action. Staff are overworked with larger workloads that the present system is ill-prepared to handle. It has created safety issues, and lowered staff morale while increasing staff stress, job dissatisfaction, and employee turnover. It has scourged the Department, and will forever be a blight on Director Charles L. Ryan’s administration, and its remarkable ineptitude.
According to ABC15 Investigative Reporter Dave Biscobing’s follow-up report on April 26, 2019, democratic lawmakers and the ACLU of Arizona are calling for Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan to resign or be fired. The report said that Arizona Governor Ducey supported Director Ryan stating, “I just want to say that at this time, I’m supportive of Director Ryan and we’re digging to get to the bottom of what the facts are.” When Ducey was asked for his reaction to the leaked surveillance videos from the Lewis Prison, he said, “I don’t have any further comment.” According to ABC15,
Analise Ortiz, spokesperson for the ACLU of Arizona Campaign for Smart Justice, released the following statement. “The failures of Arizona’s prisons rest on the shoulders of Gov. Ducey, who has for years ignored chaos, suffering, and avoidable deaths in Arizona prisons. The governor has allowed millions of taxpayer dollars to be spent fighting and ignoring court orders and denying the existence of the prisons’ inhumane conditions, rather than focusing on fixing the problems. For the more than $1 billion Arizonans spend on prisons each year, we should have safe facilities, conditions that meet Constitutional minimums, and effective rehabilitative practices in place.”
We at Talking Guns call on Governor Ducey to demand the resignation of Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles L. Ryan. If he will not tender his resignation, we call on you to fire him from the position. The citizens of the State of Arizona, the inmate population in Arizona state prisons, and the Arizona Department of Corrections employees deserve better leadership. The Director position represents the Executive Staff’s most visible symbol of professional conduct and ethics. It requires someone of impeccable character that is beyond reproach. Director Ryan’s autocratic management style has created immeasurable damage to the Arizona Department of Corrections, and his Draconian management tactics are unacceptable in today’s work environment.