Locks failed for years at an Arizona prison and allowed for serious beatings of prisoners and guards, but Corrections Director Charles Ryan failed to appreciate the seriousness of the problem until he saw video of an assault that was broadcast on television, according to a report released Thursday.
Whether Ryan was misled or disregarded information reported to him, he bears responsibility for the problem continuing at the Lewis prison, wrote retired Arizona Supreme Court Justices Rebecca White Berch and Ruth McGregor in a report commissioned by Gov. Doug Ducey.
“We conclude that the Director, for too long, remained surprisingly uninformed about the poor functioning of the locks and scope and seriousness of the danger,” they wrote. “That is not acceptable.”
The justices also place blame on understaffing, complacency by correctional officers, budget requests that were ignored and poor management at the prison in 2017 and 2018. Ryan replaced the warden and his deputies at the beginning of the year.
Ryan announced his retirement on Aug. 9, the day after he sat for his final interview with the justices. He did not respond to an email seeking comment on the report. Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder said Ryan hasn’t commented on it.
The department issued a statement saying the report provides a fair assessment of the cell-door issues at Lewis and the operational challenges faced by the agency.
Problems with locks at Lewis, about 45 miles(72 kilometers) west of downtown Phoenix, shocked lawmakers and the public when ABC 15 (KNXV-TV) aired video in April of an assault on a corrections officer from 2018. The station reported that inmates used objects to prevent their cell locks from engaging completely, even though they appeared secure on control panels.
The justices found five incidents where corrections officers were assaulted and seriously injured that could be attributed to inmates leaving their cells without permission, and another assault on an inmate. Four other beatings of seriously injured inmates may have been related to lock problems, but there wasn’t enough evidence to make a definitive conclusion.
The report said it was clear that inmates leaving their cells without authorization was “an accepted part of prison life at Lewis.”
“In recent months, the department has already begun taking steps to address many of the issues identified in the report,” the agency said. “These include implementing enhanced training for officers, improving communication among all personnel and identifying a locking system replacement project for Lewis prison.”
While the report points some of the blame at rank-and-file correction officers for complacency about checking cell locks, it also says short staffing at the Lewis prison has left less time for officers to carefully inspect doors to make sure they are locked.
Arizona’s prisons have had problems with cell doors for decades, the report said. A corrections officer was fatally stabbed in 1997 by an inmate after a lock was manipulated at the Perryville prison.
Prisons in Winslow, Tucson and Yuma have experienced similar lock problems, though not at the same level as Lewis. The Yuma prison has the same model of doors as Lewis. But it doesn’t have the same problem with mass inmate exits, perhaps because it has a far lower vacancy rate among correction officers, the report said.
Ducey said in a statement that he’ll work with the Legislature to act on the report’s recommendations. “When it comes to public safety, inaction isn’t an option,” he said.
The union presenting corrections officers didn’t return phone messages Thursday afternoon seeking comment on the report.
The report says prison officials routinely requested millions of dollars to upgrade doors and locks, only to see their budget request pared back significantly by the Arizona Department of Administration, which collects budget request from agencies in the Ducey administration. The Legislature allocated money for locks.
Over a 15-year period, the Corrections Department requested $580 million for locks, the Department of Administration recommended $114 million and the Legislature approved $6.65 million. That shows the department was not forceful enough in making the case for its critical safety needs, the justices wrote, adding they couldn’t tell how much of the money appropriated by lawmakers was actually spent on locks.