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Arizona Prison Scandal: Cell Doors that Don’t Lock, Maintenance Funds Misused

by Matt Clarke

In June 2019, the Arizona legislature’s Joint Committee on Capital Review approved $16.5 million in special funding for the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) to repair faulty cell door locks at ASPC-Lewis, after a June 2018 surveillance video aired by a Phoenix TV station showed prisoners leaving their cells to attack each other and guards. One prisoner, 36-year-old Andrew McCormick, died in the melee after sustaining injuries from multiple attackers.

“Of all the places for locks not to be working, for the safety of inmates and officers alike, what the heck?” asked Jodie McCormick, Andrew’s mother, who said the family will be filing a lawsuit against the DOC. She noted her son had only 18 months left to serve on his 12-year sentence. “It makes absolutely no sense,” she stated.

The surveillance video of McCormick’s murder was one of six obtained by TV station ABC15. In total, they showed over an hour and a half of footage during which unsupervised prisoners roamed the facility, assaulting guards and other prisoners.

“The inmates are running the unit, there’s no doubt in my mind when I see what’s going on here,” said California prison expert Richard Subia.

News reports tracked the problem with cell locks in DOC facilities back to at least 1986, when “an inmate in full restraints kicked and opened a cell door” at ASPC-Phoenix, according to an article in the Arizona Republic. That incident surfaced during an investigation into a 2000 attack on a nurse by a prisoner who had jimmied the 80-year-old lock on his cell. New locks were on order but hadn’t been installed, DOC officials said at the time.

New locks had also been ordered three years earlier at ASPC-Perryville near Goodyear, but they weren’t installed before guard Brent Lumley was stabbed to death by prisoners in 1997. [See: PLN, Sept. 1998, p.24; May 1997, p.24]. When state lawmakers subsequently provided emergency funding to repair faulty locks at the facility, the DOC admitted they had been broken for nearly a decade.

The DOC has a maintenance fund derived from a $25 fee charged to each adult who applies for permission to visit a prisoner, plus a one percent fee on deposits into prisoners’ trust fund accounts. But money in that fund had been diverted to “other uses or projects” instead of being used to repair or replace cell door locks at prisons such as Lewis, according to an April 2019 press release by Tempe-based Middle Ground Prison Reform, a non-profit that advocates for Arizona prisoners. Middle Ground had previously challenged the maintenance fund fee imposed on visitors and the one percent fee on trust account deposits.

One of 13 facilities operated by the DOC, ASPC-Lewis has a capacity of more than 5,000 prisoners who are classified on a five-level security risk scale. ABC15 interviewed multiple guards and reviewed documents, such as lawsuits, internal investigations, inspection logs and other administrative records, and found that dozens of cell door locks in the facility’s Morey, Rast and Buckley units still do not function properly. Those units house prisoners with a four- or five-level security classification.

After the ABC15 report aired, Governor Doug Ducey called for an investigation but maintained his support for DOC director Charles Ryan, even as some state lawmakers and the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association (ACPOA) demanded his replacement. After the media storm broke, Ryan made an emergency visit to ASPC-Lewis with a videographer to record his inspection alongside other top DOC administrators, as maintenance workers placed new padlocks on cell doors.

“We don’t know what Director Ryan hopes to prove with today’s dog and pony show,” the ACPOA wrote in an open letter to the governor and state lawmakers. “We don’t need some contrived video. If Director Ryan were a straight shooter, [he] would release the video from Morey Unit made on Monday [April 22, 2019] at 8:13 p.m. where 40 cell doors were opened and 30 inmates refused to lock down requiring officers to intervene. Or the video made two hours later at 10:24 p.m. when an officer was assaulted in the Buckley Unit by inmates who were out of their cells.”

The DOC’s solution to the problem at ASPC-Lewis – installing padlocks on cell doors – also drew criticism for the ease with which the padlocks could be converted into weapons, as well as the difficulty they pose in the event of an evacuation in an emergency such as a fire. Prior to padlocks, the DOC had attempted to reinforce the old locks by welding metal flanges onto the cell doors and their frames, using metal pins to secure the doors. But surveillance video aired by ABC15 showed that the pins – which can be converted into weapons – were easily removed by prisoners. Dozens of pins remain missing and unaccounted for.

Along with funding for new prison locks, the legislature approved $1.2 million for fire alarms and sprinklers that had been broken at ASPC-Lewis for a decade. But the ACPOA is less worried about fires and more about violence against staff members. The union noted that DOC guards – whose $33,000 starting salary is among the lowest in the country – experienced a record 590 attacks by prisoners in 2016.

“It has become so common it becomes a part of their culture,” said retired 20-year veteran DOC guard Carlos Garcia, who now works for the ACPOA. “God bless them, but they don’t even realize what a horrible situation they’re stuck in.”

A letter signed by the Democratic minority leadership in the Arizona House of Representatives called for DOC director Ryan’s resignation, citing not only the broken lock scandal but also a lawsuit over “abysmally poor medical care for inmates” and other issues that led to federal oversight of some DOC operations.

“How have we been so negligent for so long?” wondered state Rep. Charlene Fernandez, who noted the DOC’s annual budget is over $1 billion. “We’re putting our state employees’ lives in danger,” she added.

“Making sure employees are taken care of first, I believe that’s where [Ryan’s] heart is,” countered state Senator David Gowan. “When it comes to fixing these areas, it’s because of what’s occurred in the past” – by which he referred to fiscal constraints resulting from the recession that began in 2008.

“If we’ve had problems, we’ve either fixed it or done the maintenance to keep it going,” Ryan – then the DOC’s deputy director – said of the problem with cell door locks in a 2001 interview with the Arizona Republic. He has sought about $36 million for replacement locks in more recent years, but the Republican-controlled state legislature denied his requests.

Meanwhile, in February 2016, eight current and former prison guards filed suit against Arizona state officials, claiming the DOC had “ignored safety problems, which led to inmate attacks and life-altering injuries,” according to an ABC15 news report. The lawsuit cited several cases where guards were injured by mentally ill prisoners or prisoners who had received administrative overrides to lower security levels. Contributing factors cited in the complaint included broken cell door locks, staffing shortages and failure to restrain violent and mentally ill prisoners.

The federal district court granted in part and denied in part the state’s motion to dismiss in February 2018, and the case is currently on appeal before the Ninth Circuit. See: Russett v. Arizona, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00431-ROS. 

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Sources: middlegroundprisonreform.org, wptv.com, abc15.com, azcentral.com

Related legal case

Russett v. Arizona