By: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services August 15, 2019
The head of the Department of Corrections remained “surprisingly uninformed” about nonfunctioning locks at one of the state’s largest prisons that resulted in “inmates streaming from cells to attack correctional officers or other inmates” according to a new report issued Thursday.
The analysis, performed by two former chief justices of the Arizona Supreme Court, found that there was a “casual attitude of the inmates who leave their cells, wander the unit, and enter other cells.” More significant were the assaults on corrections officers that resulted at the Lewis Prison in Buckeye.
But retired Justices Rebecca White Berch and Ruth McGregor said they cannot definitively say that Corrections Director Charles Ryan knew about the problems – at least not until he viewed videos that by that time had been aired on television.
It shows “several inmates out of their cells and COs standing around not doing much to put the fires out or secure the inmates.” Ryan, the justice said, told them that the reports he got at the time of the incident were “cursory and unenlightening.”
“He appeared to have been shocked, when he first watched the video, to see that the event was quite serious and lasted approximately and hour and a half, and he was frustrated that leadership sat back and did not act affirmatively and decisively to resolve the incident,” the justice wrote. And they concluded that Ryan was “misled into thinking the locks were fully functional” and that inmates were getting out of their units only because the corrections officers were not checking the door frames and securing them.
And the justices said that some corrections officers had been instructed not to report security incidents “or told that information should be filtered to make a supervisor or unit ‘look good.’ ”
All that, they said, comes back to the complaints they said they heard from those they interviewed who said that Ryan surrounds himself with “yes men” and that “some dare not disagree with him and slant reports to meet his expectations for fear of discipline or termination.”
And the justices do not let Ryan off the hook because of what may have been his lack of knowledge of what was going on.
“Even if the director was mislead about the functioning of the locks he bears the responsibility as the director if the department for not being fully informed,” they wrote.
“This is certainly so if he was underinformed because his staff feared to reveal to him the extent of problems,” the justices continued. “If the director was adequately informed but disregarded the information, he bears responsibility for that as well.”
And there’s something else.
The justices said the agency recognized the “serious issue with broken locks statewide.” But it sought funds for locking system improvements only in 2011, 2012 and 2013 — and not for any subsequent year.
“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 open the doors for them,” the report says. And it says that leadership at the department “had acknowledged being advised that inmates’ ability to get out of their cells had become an increasing problem.”
The report was sought by Gov. Doug Ducey in the wake of those televised video showing that inmates could freely open and close their own cell doors. Other videos showed fires being lit and assaults on corrections officers.
But the justices went beyond the issue with the locks, finding deeper problems within the Department of Corrections, ranging from low salaries that keep the agency from retaining employees to what some people interviewed told them how Corrections Director Chuck Ryan “cultivates a culture in which employees fear to tell him negative information.
The report comes nearly two months after the Joint Legislative Budget Committee approved $16.5 million for the repair of locks in three units of Lewis prison. And that came only after ABC-15 aired videos proving that inmates could freely open and close their own cell doors.
It also comes just days after Ryan announced he was retiring after 40 years with the department, the last 10 as its director. Gov. Doug Ducey, in a prepared statement at the time, praised Ryan “for his dedication and service.”
But his tenure also was marked by not just the most recently disclosed problems with prison doors that did not lock but also an ongoing lawsuit in which a federal judge rules that the Department of Corrections is failing to live up to its legal obligations to provide adequate medical treatment to inmates.
The agency, in a prepared statement, calls the report “a thorough and fair assessment of the facts related to locking system issues at the Lewis prison and the contributing operational challenges within the department.” But nowhere does that agency response mention Ryan or address the questions raised by the justices of what the director knew or should have known.
At the heart the new report are what the justices found with doors that just did not secure.
Some, they said, was due to inmates finding ways to jam the mechanisms so that the door appeared locked but never actually was secure. But they also found that the lack of preventative maintenance also resulted in cells that actually could not be locked.
Complicating all that, the report says, is a chronic shortage of staff, not only to check out the locks but to provide overall supervision.
The Lewis facility, which currently holds more than 4,700 inmates, was designed for staffing of 30 corrections officers in each unit. But the warden there cut staffing to 21, with actual operations sometimes having even fewer.
“The shortage of staff poses dangers to the corrections officers who often have to work without ready back-up, and it predictably led to various problems,” the justice said, and not just the lack of time to carefully inspect each door frame and share the door to ensure it was secured.
“Staff also hesitated to hold inmates accountable because (a) they feared a physical response from the inmates and lacked sufficient backup from other COs on units also short-staffed, and (b) they did not want to spend time completing the paperwork required to impose discipline,” the report states.
Related to that is the question of low staff morale due to staff shortages. In interviews with supervisors and officers alike, the justices said they were told that, faced with too little time to complete their tasks, the officers “either gave up or became complacent.”
That, in turn, relates to a chronic staffing shortages, with the agency unable to fill the number of corrections officers authorized for at least the past 15 years.
“The problem does not seem to be as much with attracting and training new applicants, but rather with retaining them once hired,” the report says.
Part of that is salary.
The Legislature recently authorized a 10 percent pay hike. But the justices said that is still low when considering that some staffers said they had not had an increase in the prior 13 years.
But the justices said that salaries are not the only factor in attracting and retaining staff.
“A number of interviewees cited safety concerns and the lack of support from leadership, whether perceived or actual – that is, the feeling that supervisors and administration just don’t have the COs’ backs,” they wrote.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information and the headline was revised to indicate Charles Ryan has not yet retired.