BUCKEYE, AZ — A death inside Lewis Prison last month has exposed how staffing shortages are impacting prison operations, even in life and death situations.
ABC15 has learned that the Buckeye Valley Fire District refuses to allow emergency crews to go inside the Lewis Prison cells or yards in most circumstances.
Manuel Corona went to prison eight years ago after being convicted of aggravated assault in a Cochise County triple shooting.
The 30-year-old inmate died on February 12 after experiencing a medical emergency in Lewis Prison’s Rast Unit, a maximum-security unit. An ambulance arrived at the prison but never transported Corona.
“There are failures that are just cascading down,” said Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association.
The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry refused to tell ABC15 exactly what happened leading up to Corona’s death.
In an email, the department told ABC15 to submit a public records request to obtain information.
ADCRR took 10 months to fill public records requests relating to a 2021 prison escape.
Multiple sources tell ABC15 that the Rast Unit was short-staffed the Saturday night that Corona died with just nine correctional officers. ADCRR would not confirm that number.
“The shortage is getting worse and worse and worse,” Garcia said.
“There just aren't enough bodies there to protect; it’s a travesty,” said Donna Leone Hamm from Middle Ground Prison Reform.
It’s unclear how quickly prison staff noticed Corona needed medical help. Sources tell ABC15 they had to perform CPR and move him to the main medical hub where the ambulance crew was willing to pick him up.
The Buckeye Valley Fire District, which responds to this prison about 340 times a year, made a policy change in October. Fire District officials say it was due to concerns about the safety of their own firefighters and paramedics.
“We had some crews going into ‘max. securities’ with no safety equipment and with limited staff - prison staff,” said BVFD PIO Sarah Mendoza.
Lewis Prison is known for a 2004 hostage standoff, which was the longest in American history.
“Every time we go through those gates that [hostage situation] is in the back of our minds,” Mendoza said. She added that fire district employees have also seen ABC15’ Unlocked and Unsafe investigation about broken cell door locks at Lewis Prison.
The broken locks allowed inmates to open their own cell doors and attack other inmates or correctional officers.
Buckeye Valley’s new rules are no paramedics in prison yards or cells in nearly every circumstance. The same rules apply whether an inmate or prison staff member needs medical care.
On February 12, BVFD dispatched an ambulance at 7:19 p.m. and a fire truck at 7:31. They reached Corona outside the medical hub approximately 30 minutes later at 7:47 p.m. By then, it was too late. The ambulance never took him to a hospital, and he was pronounced dead at the prison.
It’s unclear whether anything could have saved Corona’s life that night but what about the next inmate or the staff member experiencing a medical emergency?
“Inmates are very frustrated,” Hamm said. “Some of them are fearful because they know how vulnerable they are.”
Buckeye Valley Fire District officials don’t think their new protocols jeopardize care because they said the prison always has a doctor, physician’s assistant, or nurse on site.
BVFD will also allow its staff into cells or yards in cases of cardiac arrest, stroke, or trauma, but they only enter if they have two fire or ambulance crews on-site and moving the patient would cause more harm.
“I think they have a right to expect that their ambulance, their first responders, are going to be safe” Hamm said.
The responsibility falls back on ADCRR. Director David Shinn said the agency was short 1,800 employees statewide in January when he asked the legislature for correctional officer pay raises.
“They have to find a way to get more people,” Hamm said.
Inmate Manuel Corona’s official cause of death has not been released. His autopsy results are pending.