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Report and Video of Arizona Prison Riot Released

by Matt Clarke

In December 2018, the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) released surveillance video of a major riot that occurred at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Yuma’s medium-security Cheyenne Unit on March 1, 2018. The ADC had previously issued a report on the disturbance, in which one prisoner was killed and 25 others were injured, along with 11 staff members. 

According to the report, the riot occurred spontaneously when prisoners on a recreation yard saw guards use excessive force on a combative, drunk and restrained prisoner who was being removed from the yard. Prison officials disputed that finding, claiming prisoners had told them weeks in advance there would be a protest on that date by white supremacist prisoners objecting to a new policy of forced in-cell integration. However, that explanation was questioned by others who noted there was no racial animus during the disturbance, during which the prisoners involved presented a unified front against the guards. 

Prisoners complained that during the five days following the three-hour disturbance, over 1,100 prisoners at ASPC-Yuma were forced to remain outside on the recreation yard with their hands tightly zip-tied – some tied to fences – and with no provision for medication, toilets, heating or washing while they endured physical abuse from armed guards and K9s.

“It was cold. You froze at night. You was freezin’ your butt off,” said prisoner Sean Howland. 

Trent Bouhdida collected the signatures of 70 fellow prisoners who cited civil rights abuses while detained on the yard during those five days. Such abuses included “Dirt naps for talking. Dogs in face. Boots on backs. Threatening and intimidating with shotguns.” 

The guards had already shown their willingness to use those shotguns. One had caused the only fatality when prisoner Adam Coppa, 32, was shot in the back with a 12-gauge buckshot round during the riot. Coppa’s father said prison officials lied to him about his son’s death, denying there was a riot and claiming he “dropped dead” when he went to the medical unit.

“They were lying to me, from the beginning for some reason,” Greg Coppa stated. His son was serving three years for a drug offense.

The ADC’s report did not dwell on the post-disturbance conditions that prisoners endured, but rather on how their property was treated. Six guards were fired for destroying prisoners’ property, including 145 televisions “that had been damaged consistent with intentional acts of destruction by staff. Most televisions that were inspected had boot prints. In addition, several other items of inmate property (food items, blankets, fans, etc.) were damaged or destroyed,” the report stated. The ADC replaced the TVs at a cost of $28,275. 

The facility suffered serious damage during the disturbance. The total cost was estimated at more than $500,000, which included toilets and sinks torn from walls and mattresses set on fire.

Alcohol was reportedly a contributing factor. Guards had confiscated 120 gallons of home-brewed booze within a six-month period before the riot, and the prisoner removed from the yard who was at the nexus of the disturbance was drunk at the time. Additionally, the prison administration had attempted to combat the alcohol problem by generally restricting prisoners’ visitation privileges, leading to resentment.

“There appears to be an inordinate amount of inmates on some form of restricted visitation,” the ADC report stated. “It appears the Administration is utilizing visitation as a management tool to combat homemade alcohol even though there is no evidence that the ingredients are coming through visitation.” 

Prisoners also complained about guards destroying their legal materials and family photos after the disturbance. The report noted that 125 prisoners were transferred to other facilities for participating in the riot, contradicting an earlier estimate of 600 participants. 

Outside law enforcement officers, including FBI agents, had to be called in to support prison staff to quell the disturbance. 



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