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Violence on the Rise in Arizona Prisons

by David M. Reutter

The level of violence in Arizona prisons is increasing – at least that is the conclusion to be drawn from recent reports. In 2008 alone there were four homicides in the state’s prison system, and with 12 death investigations still pending that number could rise. Arizona prisoners slain last year included:

• Sean Kelly, 42. Kelly was murdered at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis on June 29, 2008.

• Timothy Lacero, 29. In prison for marijuana violations and car theft, Lacero was assaulted and killed at the Cimarron Unit of the state prison in Tucson on September 4, 2008. His scheduled release date was 2011.

• Duffy Kilrain, 51. Kilrain died six days after being assaulted by several prisoners at the Meadows Unit of the Eyman Complex in Florence on October 20, 2008.

• Earl Ray Lappe, 32, serving a life sentence, was murdered by another prisoner at the Lewis facility only a few weeks after Kilrain was killed.

The homicides of Kelly and Lucero were discovered following a public records request by the Phoenix New Times. A subsequent inquiry revealed that Arizona’s prison system had two murders in 2005, two in 2006 and one in 2007.

Of the 2006 homicides, one was of William Harris, a prisoner at the Florence facility. As a result of that murder, Warden John Ontiveros lost his job and more than a dozen guards were “fired, forced to resign, suspended, or reprimanded” due to mistakes and “operator error” that led to Harris’ death.

An unnamed former Arizona state prisoner was quoted as saying one of the single biggest problems within the prison system was “the violence” – and such violence has not been limited to homicides.

A brawl involving ten close-security prisoners and around seven guards occurred at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Tucson over the weekend of January 31 to February 1, 2009. More than 400 prisoners were placed on lockdown following the incident, which occurred when the prisoners were returning to their housing unit from a recreation yard.
On February 25, 2009, a prisoner-on-prisoner assault at Lewis sent one prisoner to the hospital; unconfirmed reports indicated the incident involved a stabbing.

Another fight, this one involving six prisoners, occurred at Lewis on April 30, 2009. Chemical agents were used to break up the brawl; three prisoners suffered minor injuries, including puncture wounds.

On June 23, 2009, a number of close-security prisoners at the Tucson facility’s Rincon Unit began fighting in the dining hall. The violence escalated to include assaults on prison staff, and nine guards suffered injuries ranging from a broken wrist to head trauma. Three prisoners were taken to a hospital for treatment; a number of improvised weapons were recovered after the prison’s tactical team brought the incident under control.

“The officers at our Tucson prison reacted quickly and efficiently to put down a
significant disturbance with limited injuries,” said Corrections Director Charles L.
Ryan. Days after the fighting at the Rincon Unit, a violent disturbance involving up to 50 prisoners occurred at the facility’s Santa Rita Unit. Twenty prisoners sustained injuries and five were hospitalized.

Following these incidents, as well as several unrelated escape attempts, various changes were made at the Tucson prison – including the transfer of some prisoners to other facilities and the replacement of Warden Greg Fizer in July 2009.

Sources: Phoenix New Times, Arizona Republic, Associated Content,,

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