Has Arizona Governor Doug Ducey finally begun to drain his own swamp? Embattled Director Charles Ryan resigned from the Arizona Department of Corrections on September 13, 2019. He stepped down approximately five months after media stories broke regarding broken cell doors and locks at Lewis prison complex near Phoenix, Arizona. He was allowed to retire rather than being fired by Arizona Governor Ducey. Now let’s be honest about this. As much as the Governor would like everyone to believe Ryan had his full support, the controversy surrounding Charles Ryan’s AZDOC administration was a political liability that probably created tremendous embarrassment for the Governor and Arizona state government.
Charles Ryan was like an anchor around Governor Ducey’s neck, pulling him into the abyss, therefore, a decision was most likely made to mitigate the problem. He was replaced by Director David Shinn, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons official, after a nationwide search was conducted for a replacement. AZDOC is at a crossroads. Arizona Governor Ducey, the Arizona State Legislature, and the current director, David Shinn must take decisive action to eliminate the corruption, mismanagement, and cronyism within that agency.
Crucial decisions must be made to either invest in the institution, and transform it into a viable, professional organization, or continue down the current path to its eventual failure and destruction. The department’s current strategy does not seem promising. It appears the agency wants to transform into a department staffed with a cheap labor force (e.g. decreasing the hiring standards, and lowering the minimum age requirement to 18 years of age), hell-bent on a never-ending battle of attrition, while defending its position that it is a stepping stone to other careers. That game plan will not bode well for its future or the safety of its staff, inmates, and the citizens of Arizona.
Two Arizona Department of Corrections whistle-blowers (Sergeant Gabriela Contreras and Associate Deputy Warden Shaun Holland) came forward after filing separate whistle-blower disclosures with the Arizona governor’s office. Sergeant Contreras filed a whistle-blower complaint in May 2019. She alleged corrections officers were repeatedly being attacked by inmates at the Lewis prison complex near Phoenix, AZ because of faulty cell door locks that allowed inmates to leave their cells. Ms. Contreras also leaked AZDOC video surveillance footage of some of the assaults to back up her allegations. AZDOC retaliated against her with economic sanctions and threats of criminal prosecution. The department later rescinded her discipline and ceased their threats with no apology.
Associate Deputy Warden Shaun Holland filed a whistle-blower complaint with the governor’s office in early December 2019, alleging that faulty cell doors at the Lewis state prison complex were not getting repaired despite repeated requests. He stated in the whistle-blower disclosure, “Instead of identifying and repairing the doors, the prison administration is hiding the problems by ‘closing out’ hundreds of repair orders without completing any repairs.” ADW Holland also provided video footage to the media to corroborate his allegations.
During a press conference that ADW Holland attended, he said that AZDOC investigators had questioned him regarding his whistle-blower complaint. They assured him he was not in trouble but he clearly felt that he was the focus of their investigation. Mr. Holland said they previously had all of his information, and he questioned why they were not interviewing others [that had pertinent information] instead of him. He felt they were attempting to disprove his allegations, rather than conducting an unbiased investigation.
Five top department executives have resigned, including former Director Charles Ryan since the local news media reporting revelations. Two retired Arizona Supreme Court chief justices, Rebecca Berch and Ruth McGregor were tasked by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in April, 2019 to investigate the AZDOC regarding the broken cell door locks at Lewis state prison complex, and to determine if the problem was systemic.The former justices concluded their investigation, and released their report within days after Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan announced he would retire on September 13, 2019. The report had several recommendations for improvements within the department, including increased budgeting for infrastructure upgrades, improved training, and strengthening staff and management relationships.
What is striking about the report is that the former justices deduced that AZDOC Director Charles Ryan was “surprisingly uninformed” of the severity and extent of the problems that existed with the security doors and locks. Their report indicated that Mr. Ryan was “misled into thinking the locks were fully functional” but they were being defeated by inmate tampering because corrections officers were not checking the cell door frames for obstructions, and securing them. Director Ryan was characterized as surrounding himself with “yes men” that were afraid to disagree with him, and would distort reports to meet his expectations, for fear of being disciplined or fired. The former director said he did not know the severity of the problem until he viewed the ABC15 news reports featuring the leaked corrections surveillance videos of inmates leaving their cells at will.
I am not questioning the retired chief justices’ integrity or credentials, however, I am puzzled that Governor Ducey tasked them with conducting the investigation into the AZDOC because the justices were former members of the judicial branch of Arizona government. Why did the governor choose to task investigators with ties to Arizona government rather than investigators from outside the state with no appearance of political ties or conflicts of interest? The latter option would have presumably lent more credence to investigatory conclusions reached regarding Ryan’s culpability for the well-publicized Arizona state prison security issues. While the justices did not absolve the former director of the prison security deficiencies, they did not definitively conclude he was fully aware of the severity and extent of the security problems.
According to an ABC15 report posted by Investigative Reporter Dave Biscobing on May 1, 2019, many current and retired AZDOC employees found Ryan’s supposed lack of full knowledge of the security deficiencies difficult to believe. There was ample documentation as well as internal investigations, and prison surveillance videos to confirm overwhelming and ongoing evidence that often reached the director’s office in regard to security issues inside Lewis state prison complex. In addition, the former director was known as having an autocratic management style that seemed to contradict a lack of awareness.
In the interest of transparency and holding the Arizona Department of Corrections accountable to the citizens of Arizona, Talking Guns has posted an AZDOC memorandum with this article. It was composed by Joe Profiri on November 30, 2015, who was the AZDOC Southern Region Operations Director at that time. He is currently the Deputy Director of the AZDOC, and formerly the interim director after Charles Ryan’s departure.
Most of the attention has been focused on the Lewis prison complex near Phoenix, Arizona. The posted memorandum, however, was regarding security issues at the Cimarron state prison in Tucson, Arizona. The document was forwarded to the Arizona Department of Corrections Deputy Director Jeff Hood (who was serving under Director Charles L. Ryan at that time), through AZDOC Division Director Carson McWilliams with Offender Operations. The document described a staff assault by several inmates on October 22, 2015 that led to an after-action review of security doors and locks within that unit.
The review revealed that many cell door security problems existed as a result of design flaws and inmate tampering with security devices. As a result of the cell door security issues, four inmates from three different cells were determined to have manipulated the locking devices on their assigned cell doors that allowed them to exit their cells. Those inmates joined six other inmates that were already out of their cells for various reasons, including, porter duties, showering, and meal services. Those ten inmates engaged in assaults on a staff member identified as Special Security Unit Sergeant Armando Salazar, as well as other staff members that responded to the location to render aid.
Sources told Talking Guns that Sergeant Salazar was unaware of the cell door locking system deficiencies prior to the attack on him. The department already knew about the inmates’ abilities to defeat the cell door locking systems, and placed him in a dangerous, preventable situation. Sergeant Salazar suffered grievous injuries from the assault (including a severe leg injury that necessitated a hip replacement, and a brain injury), and was incapable of returning to work. What was his reward from the Arizona Department of Corrections for putting his life on the line in service to the public and the department? It was the department’s position that it was not responsible for his injuries, and did not believe it could be held accountable for deliberate indifference regarding the safety of its employees. Sergeant Salazar is no longer employed by the department, and is currently social security disabled after receiving a small workers compensation sum. He will most likely be unable to achieve gainful employment because of his injuries.
The memorandum proceeded to detail who was involved in the incident, as well as how the security features on the doors were defeated. Portions of it were redacted, seemingly to preserve institutional security. Interestingly, the memo mentioned a particular method that the four inmates used to defeat their cell door locks and exit their cells. It indicated that those efforts predated 2011 and continued, as evidenced by a photograph of a portion of a security locking device on a cell door, included in the memorandum. The photo was redacted, but according to the memo, it was taken at the Cimarron Unit in housing unit number one on November 13, 2015, and depicted tampering that occurred to the device which would defeat the locking mechanism and allow the cell door to open.
According to the document, the locks on the cell doors at the Cimarron Unit became known as needing attention in August 2011 when the Tucson Complex submitted a project request for inoperative locks and shower doors. The reliability of the cell locks predated that project request, as most of the cell doors at the Cimarron Unit had already been pinned [using steel pins to secure the doors] externally before the request was made. The pinning of the doors indicated the doors required an additional fail safe locking mechanism beyond the standard or installed locks. On October 21, 2011, a site survey and assessment of the project work to be completed, was performed at the Cimarron Unit.
Recommendations were made to improve the existing security devices, and replace door control panel systems. In June 2012 a contract was awarded for control panel replacements for Cimarron housing units. During the control panel replacement process, it was determined that many of the locks had lost their functionality and compatibility with the control panels because of being operated manually with keys for years. In March 2013, new locks, switches, and magnets were purchased, and installed to rectify the functionality and compatibility issues between the cell doors and the new door control panel system. In September 2013, additional funding was provided to complete the door control panel project and replace additional locks.
The entire project was completed in May 2015. It took over four years to complete and cost an estimated $783,288.08. New control panels were installed in all of the control rooms, including main control. Approximately 50-60 new cell door locks were installed, and 26 cell doors were replaced. The memo states, “Having completed this extensive project in an effort to enhance security, it was determined that inmates were still able to defeat cell door locking mechanisms and exit their cells at will. As a result, all Cimarron cell doors had tamper plates welded upon them from June 22, 2015 through August 27, 2015, in an effort to thwart this inmate behavior.”
It further states, “Despite continuous efforts since 2011, to mitigate the ability of inmates at the Cimarron Unit to defeat their cell door locks, it is evident; based on available information and absent staff examining each cell door after ever [sic] turn-in/out to ensure the locking mechanism has not been tampered with, inmates remain able to manipulate cell door locking mechanisms in a manner that allows them the ability [to] open their cell doors.”
The most significant section of the memorandum relates to recommendations that were made as a result of the after-action security review of the Cimarron Unit in Tucson, Arizona. It recommended a complete statewide survey of all facilities to determine the existence of locking mechanisms that were susceptible or had a history of being defeated through inmate tampering and/or manipulation.
It recommended an evaluation to determine alternate locking mechanisms that were not susceptible to defeat, including updating physical plant standards to require the identified lock as department standard, and to begin systematic and scheduled replacement of locks identified as susceptible to defeat.
The review also recommended the establishment of interim countermeasures to mitigate tampering with identified locks, which included: 1. the installation of tamper resistant plates over locking devices on cell doors and/or frames 2. the removal of any item, including furniture within a cell, that could be used to defeat any tamper resistant plate through bending or other methods 3. the installation of external door pins as necessary
Remember, the memo was composed on November 30, 2015 by Joe Profiri, who is currently the second in command of the Arizona Department of Corrections. He indicated that door and lock security issues emerged at the Cimarron Unit in Tucson as far back as 2011. He made recommendations through his chain of command in the 2015 memo for a statewide survey of all facilities to determine the existence of locking mechanisms that were susceptible or had a history of being defeated by inmate tampering and/or manipulation. So why were the cell door lock security issues not identified and fixed at the Lewis prison complex near Phoenix, Arizona? Are we expected to believe that the second in command of the department, who composed the memorandum, did not communicate at any time to his boss, Director Ryan, that this situation existed? Are we also to accept that the memorandum did not make its way up through the chain of command to Mr. Ryan?
The two retired Arizona Supreme Court chief justices, Ruth McGregor and Rebecca Berch, who conducted an investigation of the department’s cell door security issues at Lewis state prison complex, stated in their report, “The Lewis Complex was not included in the requests for funds for prison locking systems in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, or 2020. (See Attachment 4.) This is so even though, by at least 2017-18, assaults and deaths had resulted in part from the ability of inmates to “access their doors” and leave their cells without having the COs [correctional officers] open the doors for them, and AZDOC leadership had acknowledged being advised that inmates’ ability to get out of their cells had become an increasing problem.”
Let’s summarize this, shall we? The AZDOC brass knew about the cell door security issues as far back as at least 2011, as acknowledged by the aforementioned memorandum by current Deputy Director Joe Profiri. The problems he identified were at the Cimarron Unit in Tucson, Arizona, but he recommended a statewide survey of all facilities to determine the existence of security device problems involving locking mechanisms. The retired chief justices of the Arizona Supreme Court that conducted an internal investigation of the department indicated that the Lewis state prison complex was not included in the request for funds for prison locking systems in 2014 through 2020. I’ll let our readers draw their own conclusions from that information.
There is a call for the removal of those that worked most directly with Charles Ryan during his administration. We at Talking Guns are calling for the dismissals of not only executive staff that were under Ryan’s command, but also Wardens and Deputy Wardens that were complicit regarding the system-wide security failures, and their hazardous effects on public safety, staff, and inmates. It is not enough to simply replace a director and expect real results, and change to occur if you retain holdovers from a previous administration with credibility issues.
Inside sources spoke with Talking Guns and indicated that former Director Ryan knew about the serious security door issues within the Arizona state prison system, including Lewis state prison complex, and the recurring staff and inmate assaults that resulted from cell doors being opened by inmates. Sources said Wardens and Deputy Wardens were aware of the security issues, but when information was relayed to Director Ryan, he allegedly told them he didn’t want to hear about them, and they were instructed to keep the problems at the complex level. It appeared to sources that the former director attempted to insulate himself from a potential crisis situation by creating plausible deniability.
In addition to the potential civil actions that will most likely result from the many security failures of this agency, there is another element that needs to be addressed. Will there be a prosecutorial phase to this correctional saga? Will any AZDOC officials be held criminally culpable for their actions or inaction that led to the death of Inmate Andrew McCormick or others, and the many staff and inmate assaults that occurred as a result of those security door failures? Are the felony charges of criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment off the table? How about felony charges of falsification of government documents involving hundreds of falsified cell door repair orders? Homicide has no statute of limitations, and felonies have a statute of limitations of seven years in Arizona.
Is the public just supposed to look the other way and forget what happened? Are the victims, their family members, and friends going to see justice served, or just expected to pick up the pieces of their lives, move on, and forget about their physical and psychological trauma associated with assault or homicide? Do we just let everyone involved in these scandals walk away with their pensions without any criminal accountability?
The Arizona Attorney General and County Attorneys have tremendous prosecutorial discretion in these matters. But what kind of message does it send to the public and crime victims if people involved in these scandals are not held to account? Is the criminal justice system going to send a message that if you are wealthy, or in a powerful position, or politically connected, that you are not above the law, and the rule of law does apply to you? Will there ultimately be justice for any of the victims or is the State of Arizona hoping to just settle the matters in civil court, and that any criminal allegations will get lost and forgotten in the 24/7 news cycle? There are many questions, and I hope the criminal justice system has some answers. At this moment… all I hear…are crickets trilling.
On March 31, 2019, I arrived to work and grabbed all my paperwork for my overtime post in Pod 4. Before I go any further, let me just touch base on Pod 4 first. Pod 4 is what we call the Special Needs Pod, a.k.a. SNP. The people housed in this area are people who would not do well in a General Population unit. Aside for being on medications for mental health, (i.e. bipolar, schizophrenia, etc.) these people also have a higher potential of being taken advantage of by other inmates. So much like the maximum security units are used to keep people who don’t play well with others, separate. We use this pod to protect these individuals of that risk. So now that that’s out of the way let me continue with my day.
I did a head-count in the unit and appeared to be accurate with my paperwork. “As soon as count clears, we can start some out-time and then later close up shop and start my regular graveyard shift.”
At approximately 1930 Hours, the head-count in the facility was cleared and it was time to begin out-time. Prior to opening all the doors, I give my usual announcement over the intercom, briefly explaining my expectations and rules. A minute later, the doors are opened using the computer at my desk.
Inmates speed walk to the tablets, some to get front row to the TV area, some for access to the showers and others begin to make a line in front of the deputy station. All familiar to me as it’s seen almost on a daily. What was NOT familiar was THAT guy. As everyone is doing what appears to be the norm to me, he walked in front of my desk with his hands behind his back. Without breaking eye contact he stared at me until he was past my desk and continued on. It’s not uncommon in here to see people off in their own world. Mental health issues are a reality people often mistake for something else.
I quickly shook that off and continued on with the people in front of my desk. One of the first rules I learned (if not all, then most people in a correctional setting) is “keep your head on a swivel.” Second, “Never sit down when you have inmates out.” Well… I eventually broke that one.
I finished helping the last person near my desk and took a look around the pod. Some were playing chess while others shuffling cards. People were sitting near the TV area watching a movie, and others doing laps outside in the rec area. But THIS guy. This guy walked in front of my desk again and would not break eye contact. So I greeted him. “What’s up man? How’s it goin’?” And he replied with… nothing. He continued to stare until he walked past my desk and continued on. Something was not right.
As I watched him slowly walk away from the desk to start another lap inside the day room, someone approached and asked if I could look up their next court date. So as I log in, I pull out the chair from the desk and sit down. This process only takes, if anything, 10 seconds to do. So the court date was given and that person left. As I turn around to stand up, I had another inmate approach me from the outside rec area and ask if I could do the same for him. I had the inmate come around the desk and the results were given. Here, at this moment, is where things began to go a different direction.
The inmate asked me a question about his charges. And after that question was answered, he asked another. And then another…. and then another. In the process of answering these questions, I noticed someone in orange standing off to my left. At a distance, not yet close enough to the yellow and black line around my desk. I did not address it or pay TOO much attention to it because I was under the impression that it was just another inmate wanting to have access to his room. To put his shower shoes away or lock up their ramen noodles so no one steals it. Either way, through my peripheral vision, I knew someone was there.
I continued answering these questions and realized TWO things. First thing, I haven’t seen ol’ boy in a minute. So I do a quick glance in front of my desk, towards the TV area and he was not in sight. So I looked up at a mirror that hangs on the pillar in front of my desk. I turn my head and realize that the person who I saw in my peripheral, was actually the guy who had been staring at me since the beginning of out-time. Second thing, I realized had been sitting down for longer than I had wanted.
I immediately stopped answering questions for the other inmate and addressed this guy. “Did you need something?” Silence was the response. “Do you have any questions?” This inmate looks down at his feet, and slightly rocking his body back and forth. He then looks at me again without saying a word. “I need you to keep walking. I don’t need you standing behind me. Come around the desk if you have any questions.”
Right after this is when he charged at me the first time. When he charged at me, I was still trying to figure out if he was rocking forward and was waiting on the “back” part. I then realized there would be no “back” at that point. I pushed off the desk and he landed in front of me. I pushed off him and stood up at the same time. I covered my head and tried to move away from my desk into an open area. He continued swinging and as I side stepped away, he tripped and fell to the ground. Here is the space I needed. I reach behind me and press my duress pager, signaling for backup to my location. I begin to move away from my desk into an area that’s open and away from keyboards and monitors. I move to this area knowing there are no inmates there or any that can sneak up behind me without me being aware. The inmate stands up and charges at me for a second time. I swing and he ends up on the ground. The perfect opportunity to go in and handcuff… and we can call it a day! But, no, I can’t… I have 55 inmates out and about. Going to the ground is not the smartest thing to do. I back away towards the entrance of the pod. That’s where my back up is coming through. Oh snap! He’s charging at me again!
As I continue to defend myself, I begin to bob and weave as best as I could while walking closer and closer to the entrance. I’m seeing more and more orange come closer to me. I have to end this or get out of this area. I reach for the inmates left arm and as I was about to pull him on the ground, I see another inmate start to swing, so I pushed. But I forgot to let off the arm I was holding on to and went to the ground anyway. I was now I top of two inmates and more than a handful of inmates were within arms’ reach.
My right knee is on top of one inmate, my left leg pushing off the ground putting constant pressure on both inmates. My right hand keeping the inmates hand away from my face. And my left hand reaching for the only tool I had available — my pepper spray. I began to yell at everyone to get back and cell in. I repeated it several times as people began to leave. Some were pulling on the inmate’s feet. My thoughts; Is he trying to pull him out? Prone him down and help? “GET BACK AND CELL IN!!”
I’m now clear from inmates, except this guy walking up… “Guzman, are you good? Do you need more help?”
I take a deep breath and reply “I’m good! You need to cell in right now!”
“Are you sure? I’m here if you need it…”
Again, I look at him and reply, “thank you but I need you to listen… my back up is coming through those doors any second. And you don’t want to be standing there when they come through. I need you to cell in.”
I now look down to see what I’m dealing with on the second inmate… oh… he has him in a choke hold. The second inmate looks at me and says, “I’m sorry deputy! I couldn’t just sit there and watch!”
I replied “You’re fine! Just. Don’t. Move!” I haven’t heard a single radio call since I hit my pager… where’s my back up?? Why have I not heard anything??? A brief moment later I realized my earpiece was not where it was supposed to be — in my ear. So I unplugged the earpiece and radioed for back up. “I need back up to pod 4… inmate fighting staff!” I hear the elevator doors. Someone is coming. *sigh* I look down and ask the guy why. His reply was, “You made me bleed my own blood!” Confused, I asked, “what did you think was going to happen?!” And he continued stating, “Because of you, I’ll never see my family again. Because of you, I’ll never see my kids. Because of you I’m in here!”
I thought to myself “I don’t even KNOW you!!” But then shook that off when I remembered what unit I was working. Today, for this moment, I was a part of his world. Back up arrived. The inmate that helped was moved away from the area. The other deputies and I rolled this inmate over and began to give instructions to give me his right arm. As I pulled his right arm out, I saw his hand was wrapped in medical gauze… and sticking out of in between his fingers was a wooden tongue depressor. Not sharpened but still, very present. I realized the only hit I took to the face, could have had a different outcome had my training been taken lightly or as a joke. Thankfully, this is never and won’t ever be the case with DTs (defensive tactics) or any other training I go through. I was then removed from the area by my Sergeant and was asked what had happened. About 40 minutes later, I found out that Davis was the last name of the guy who attacked me. I filed my report, dusted myself off and went on to continue my regular graveyard shift. I was told that if I wanted to go home and be with my family, I could. “I got one more day ‘til my weekend. I’m tired. But I don’t rest when I’m tired. I’ll rest when I’m done.” Sergeant nodded their head, told me I did a great job. And the rest of the night went on just like any other night.
A rare event occurred in our facility. Though dealing with “disruptives,” drunks, people that come in high or just plain pissed off, is a norm, attacks on staff in an open area like this in this facility is a rare thing. I come from a background of 8 years in loss prevention. This is my first law enforcement position ever. If I can give any advice to anyone new in the field, it’s these few things:
1. Keep your head on a swivel. Build that habit and it will always be second nature.
2. LISTEN when it is time to listen. Your training is crucial and important to everything you (your family in blue, or family in general) may encounter in your day-to-day life. Much like why policies are in place, someone, somewhere, went through a crappy situation and now became a training scenario. So take your training seriously.
3. Treat others the way you want to be treated. A core value that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office lives by. Respect that is EARNED goes further than respect that is TAKEN. Not everyone in jail is bad. Treat everyone fairly, and maybe one day one of them will help you out when you really need it.
And last but not least… don’t ever break your own rules. Complacency is NOT your friend. I broke my own rule because I felt comfortable. And it almost cost me my life — if not my life, then at minimum my vision. The only hit I took was to my face, but his knuckle and the tongue depressor scratched about an inch below my eye.
I have gotten support from all over the nation — my family, friends and my extended family in blue… the deepest and most humbled thank you to all of you. I will not stop when I am tired. I will stop when I am done.
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.
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.