Arizona Department of Corrections : A Culture Of Secrecy

Brian KovacsAugust 8, 201918min302933
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You probably remember the expression, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Apparently it is for many Arizona Department of Corrections staff members as they continue to flee the department in record numbers. Many are choosing to retire or are leaving for other jobs or agencies. Is it surprising why so many people are choosing to leave? The department has been plagued with multiple scandals over the years, culminating with demands from a variety of organizations and public figures that Director Charles Ryan step down or be fired. Four department administrators recently “retired” from state service after the media released stories regarding department security deficiencies and malfeasance. Curiously, Director Ryan has not stepped down nor has he been terminated. Supposedly an unbiased, thorough investigation has begun regarding the Lewis prison security issues, and other questionable department practices.

Despite the department’s efforts at damage control, including the recent rescission of some department policies that were damaging to staff morale, employees continue to leave. A recent ten percent pay increase was negligible, and has had little, if any effect on staff recruitment or retention. In an attempt to increase staffing levels, the department has resorted to having the legislature statutorily reduce the minimum age requirement to eighteen for hiring corrections officers.

According to insiders, the department culture has not changed. Some say the department has weaponized its Administrative Investigations Unit to intimidate and silence staff members. Some staff members have received letters sent from AIU on department letterhead to their personal addresses warning them about their social media use. There are certain time and place restrictions on First Amendment rights, but that practice seems unsettling and Orwellian, and should be concerning to most. Management continues to mistreat their employees, sometimes using more subtle or surreptitious tactics because of increased public scrutiny. Employees have been denied transfers, use of their earned sick and annual leave, and assigned to unfavorable work areas as forms of retaliation and management abuse.

Working conditions in the state prison system have not improved; they have worsened in some institutions, according to sources. There have been a number of department safety issues mentioned in various publications and television news stories. There are problems with security doors not locking, giving inmates the opportunity to assault corrections staff at will. High-risk inmates are being placed in less restrictive prison environments without being properly vetted. Staffing shortages have resulted in department managers requiring staff to manage an inordinate number of inmates and liabilities. Sanitation issues exist that increase the risk of illness and disease to staff and inmates. Medical issues continue to be problematic for staff. When inmates do not receive required medical care or medication it can create health issues for inmates, and staff safety issues because of the potential for inmate retaliation. The situation becomes particularly dangerous when prisoners with mental health illnesses have not received prescribed psychotropic medications.

I am going to provide some recent examples of hazardous working conditions and dangerous security issues at the Arizona State Prison-Eyman complex in Florence, Arizona. Special Management Unit One is a so-called “lockdown” unit in the prison vernacular, and used to be considered a maximum security unit. It currently houses maximum and lower custody inmates. The sanitation in that unit is reportedly so horrid that an infestation of mice has developed. Inmates are allegedly trapping and killing them, and throwing them into the cell blocks where they are sometimes left for days. Although rare, another concern is the potential for a Hantavirus outbreak. Miscellaneous garbage is strewn about in cell blocks and officer control rooms throughout the prison, and roach infestation is widespread.

The Meadows Unit is a medium security sex offender prison also located in Eyman complex in Florence, Arizona. According to sources, a bed bug infestation has existed in that unit since approximately October 2017, and there is documentation of the problem dating back to January 2018. The bed bug problem still exists despite efforts to eradicate the parasites. Employees are concerned with the possibility of the parasites infesting their clothing, personal vehicles, and homes, thereby placing their own family members at risk. Rest assured that any evidence of the aforementioned conditions in those prisons will be eliminated prior to any facility tours attended by prison visitors. Multiple resources will be used to sanitize, organize, and put on a disingenuous display for the attendees. A DOC tour can be likened to a tour of North Korea in terms of institutional access and public transparency.

Cook Unit is another medium security sex offender prison located in Eyman complex in Florence, Arizona. Both Cook and Meadows units continue to operate by usually using one staff member to supervise one to two housing units for sometimes an entire shift ranging from 8-12 hours. Each housing unit can accommodate approximately 200 inmates. That means that one officer is expected to supervise approximately 200-400 inmates, and some inmates are being left unsupervised at times. Does that sound reasonable and safe to you? The department seems more focused on ensuring that posts are staffed with less emphasis on inmate accountability and staff safety.

Meadows Unit recently had an incident where a lone staff member had a medical emergency while working in a housing unit with approximately 160 inmates. The officer was locked in a secured control room but fell and struck his head on a concrete floor. He lay bleeding in a semi-conscious state without a backup officer present to immediately render aid. Luckily for him, an inmate reportedly went to an adjacent housing unit and notified an officer of the situation. That incident could have had a worse outcome, and demonstrates the risk to staff when understaffing occurs in those work areas.

Some sources say that an increase in attempted suicides and two recent inmate deaths at Special Management Unit One can be attributed in part to low staffing levels. On May 16, 2019, at approximately 2:00 A.M. an inmate was found dead in his cell. The deceased was reportedly discovered hanging from his cell door approximately four hours after death. Questions arose regarding staffing levels and whether the security checks were completed in a timely manner. Interestingly, the department video surveillance footage leading up to that time, and the corrections log book for that area have gone missing.

In the early afternoon of June 16, 2019, an inmate attempted to commit suicide using a homemade noose that he fashioned from a bedsheet. According to sources, he took at least six minutes or more to construct it while in a visible area of a cell block that has a video surveillance camera. He placed the noose around his neck and tied the other end of it to a safety railing on a second floor tier. He then jumped over the railing, and hanged himself. Two officers walked into the cell block as he jumped and were able to save his life. Sources said the area where the incident occurred is understaffed with only one control room officer to monitor two control rooms in an area that houses up to 96 inmates. That incident clearly underscores the danger of those prison areas where inmates are allowed to roam freely within their cell blocks during daytime hours with little or no supervision.

In the late afternoon of July 20, 2019, an inmate was found dead in his cell in an area of the prison designated for increased health and welfare security inspections. The inmate was reportedly transported to Special Management Unit One in the early morning hours that day and was taken to the unit’s medical facility. He was described as possibly being under the influence of methamphetamine and heroin. The medical facility released the inmate from their care and he was escorted to a watch cell. He was found dead in his cell later that day from a possible drug overdose. Sources indicated that one correctional officer was assigned to watch three cell blocks that day. The three cell blocks accommodated up to 24 special security watches, in total (including several suicide watches). The same officer was also required to perform other duties such as escorting inmates, feeding and clothing inmates, paperwork, etc.

Special Management Unit One is reportedly having security issues where inmates have successfully opened a locked cell door. They gained unauthorized access into a cell block and allegedly terrorized other inmates that were locked in other cells. That activity occurred multiple times in an area monitored by surveillance cameras. The Arizona Department of Corrections allegedly knew about it since July 24, 2019 but never informed corrections officers about the problem, and did not move those offending inmates from that area. Insiders said Director Ryan toured Special Management Unit One on July 26, 2019 but it is unclear if the visit was related to the cell door security issue.

ABC News affiliate, ABC15 in Phoenix, Arizona, recently reported that eight current and former Arizona Department of Corrections officers are suing the State of Arizona. They are suing for safety issues that led to inmate assaults, resulting in them suffering grievous personal injuries. According to the ABC15 report, a lawyer representing the State of Arizona argued for the case to be thrown out in the 9th District U.S. Court of Appeals because of qualified immunity. A 2008 United States Supreme Court case Pearson v. Callahan interpreted qualified immunity in part, as follows: “Qualified immunity balances two important interests–the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” The lawyer representing the State of Arizona, Nicholas Acedo, stated, “None [of the corrections officers] allege that they were tricked into accepting their jobs or that on the day of their respective assaults, they protested the unit they were assigned to or the task they were assigned.” According to the ABC15 news report, Mr. Acedo added that the plaintiffs were previously aware of the alleged understaffing and broken cell door locks. Department lawyers tried using a similar legal argument when an educator that worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections was viciously stabbed and raped at Meadows Unit at the Eyman prison complex in Florence, Arizona on January 30, 2014.

The department lawyers said the victim was issued a [two-way] radio and knew the inherent risks working around an inmate population. That teacher had no defensive weapon available at that time, and was left alone in an isolated building with no one to check on her. I don’t know about you, but I’m outraged and disgusted by remarks such as those made by the department’s attorneys. I believe they are insensitive, and place blame on the victims for the crimes committed against them. Is Mr. Acedo suggesting the Arizona Department of Corrections did not exercise power irresponsibly when it required department employees to work in areas the department knew were understaffed and had dangerous security issues? The department can’t have it both ways. It puts tremendous pressure on its staff to perform well in understaffed prison environments with ever-increasing dangers and workloads, under threat of disciplinary action if their expectations are not met. But if something goes wrong then it’s the staff’s fault for knowingly working in an environment they knew was understaffed and unsafe.

Perhaps I’m being obtuse. Am I missing something here Mr. Acedo? Yes, there are inherent dangers when you work in a law enforcement or corrections capacity, or any high-risk profession for that matter, but that’s not what I am referring to here. I am referring to known risks that could have been negated if handled properly. These are foreseeable, dangerous threats that are either preventable or created entirely by the ineptitude of department leadership; they are typically fueled by poor decision-making, and influenced heavily by political considerations. Apparently the Arizona Department of Corrections didn’t read or disregarded the news release dated Thursday, May 2, 2019 from the Arizona House Republican Caucus endorsed by 31 Arizona State Representatives. That statement reads, “Any policy that undermines public safety and jeopardizes the security of corrections officers is completely unacceptable, and we are deeply troubled by reports regarding Lewis Prison. We strongly urge the Department of Corrections to immediately take the necessary steps to address the issue, and we are encouraged that Governor Ducey has tasked former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justices Rebecca Berch and Ruth McGregor with investigating the matter. We look forward to their report and recommendations, and we stand ready to take any legislative action that may be needed.” The Arizona Department of Corrections cannot be allowed to undermine public safety or jeopardize the security of corrections staff while using department policy to diminish its responsibility or shield itself from liability.

Many state corrections employees have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and retaliation by the Arizona Department of Corrections management for speaking out against the present department culture. The current department management culture doesn’t encourage or condone individualists. Management discourages free-thinking and prefers to hire and mold robotic thinkers. The department has had five decades to create a tractable employee culture that is less likely to influence positive change within the agency. That attitude seems to be most prevalent with the old guard managers who do not want to disrupt the status quo. Considering the existing conditions within the Arizona Department of Corrections, it is not surprising that more employees have not spoken out regarding safety issues, or questioned management decisions, or their lack of regard for employee safety.

The Arizona Department of Corrections is clearly in need of significant department reforms. Recent news stories have highlighted the department’s security deficiencies, management bullying and ineptitude, as well as compromised employee and inmate safety. Unfortunately, the department culture will not change without continued public pressure and outside agency intervention. The department has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to police itself. Safeguards need to be adopted to ensure the agency upholds the duties, and responsibilities that the public has entrusted it with.

3 comments

  • Michael Benjamin

    August 12, 2019 at 7:50 am

    As a former DOC employee of 10+ years, I can tell you that these same issues plagued DOC as far back as 1995. As a Sergeant I routinely complained about my unit being understaffed while conducting full operations. I’ve seen staff assaulted, raped, and murdered. Anyone who was outspoken on these issues was ostracized and punished by the inept and toxic Administration. The response was always the same, suspend and fire line staff, move the incompetent Administrators, and then promote them later for keeping their mouths shut. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

    Reply

  • Samuel Rosenblatt

    August 12, 2019 at 1:03 pm

    Amazing (not)!! To stop the flow of outbound staff, pay commensurate to California or other states is the key. AND make sure the benefits (healthcare, etc.) doesn’t match the increase in pay! A 10% raise only means a 20% raise in benefit costs…

    Reply

  • Samuel Rosenblatt

    August 12, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    Also, there is an old proverb about CO’s. One officer, 80 inmates. We need more inmates. Unfortunately it’s true.

    Reply

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