Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan claimed this week that he did not know the scope and severity of the broken door lock problem at Lewis Prison, according to the head of the corrections officer’s union.
Arizona Correctional Peace Officer Association Executive President Darren Sikes spoke with Ryan in a two-hour meeting on Monday that was called by the director for his top staff and leaders from multiple unions.
“What (Ryan) said is he didn’t know it was this severe,” Sikes said.
But many current and retired Department of Corrections employees told ABC15 that is hard to believe.
Routine inspection logs, internal investigations, incident reports, and surveillance videos show there was overwhelming and ongoing evidence – often reaching the director’s office – documenting a serious problem inside Lewis Prison.
In an email Wednesday, a department spokesman called what was happening at the prison “unacceptable” and confirmed it’s common for the director and executive team to review videos and monthly inspection logs.
The spokesperson did not dispute Sikes’s account of the meeting. In a previous statement before ABC15’s investigation broke, the Department of Corrections also claimed Ryan was first informed of the situation in May 2018.
“That’s false,” said Douglas Schuster, a retired deputy warden, who spent two years running the Morey Unit inside Lewis Prison.
Schuster oversaw the Morey Unit in 2013 and 2014.
He said broken doors locks were a prevalent and open problem in the prison. It was a problem not only contained to cell doors. Jail pod entry and building door locks also failed.
Schuster said there were also instances when inmates got out of buildings – but not prison fences – because of faulty door locks.
“I drafted 703 reports on a monthly basis that went up through the warden to the central office that said 25 percent of my locks and doors did not work,” he said. “
According to Department of Corrections policies, the 703 Monthy Inspection System is a process that documents issues with the security of prison units. There are three classifications: GREEN for incompliance, AMBER for minor issues, and RED for significant threats to life and safety.
For RED level issues, notifications are required to go to executive staff, including the director and his top aides.
In an email response, a corrections department spokesman did not directly answer a question why the inspection log notifications failed to bring the severity of the problem to Ryan’s attention.
In response to another question about why more wasn’t done sooner, the spokesman wrote, “The Director ordered the padlocking of cells starting in January, with a strategy of changing inmate behavior by padlocking certain pods in order to deter the behavior of pin tampering. Despite this, the behavior continued, additional padlocks were installed, with all 1,000 being installed by April 29.”
ABC15’s investigation launched on April 25.
The following day, Ryan showed up at Lewis Prison and ordered the emergency padlocking of 1,000 cells. The move is in violation of fire codes but has been temporarily approved by the state fire marshal.
Records generated from director’s office in January also document that Ryan and his top staff knew the problems in Lewis Prison needed to be addressed.
On January 3, union leaders met with top DOC administrators for a regularly scheduled meeting. Director Ryan was in attendance, meeting minutes show. One of the issues the two sides discussed was the broken doors at Lewis.
In response to a question from the union about plans to fix the doors, DOC’s division director of operations, Carson McWilliams said, “I did experience the issue at the Rast close yard one evening last month. We need to do a number of things to address such as working on keeping doors properly maintained through routine preventative maintenance, holding inmates accountable for tampering with them and repairing the doors so they cannot be opened from the inside. We are putting together a plan to start door repairs in Rast, Morey and Buckley. It all starts with consistent, impactful enforcement of the inmate behavior.”
Union officials said that’s the director and his top staff unfairly placing blame on officers instead of their own failure to fix the door locks.
“It starts with you fixing the doors,” said Carlos Garcia, a retired lieutenant and union representative. “(Officers) can’t have consistency. (Officers) can’t enforce when you have inmates running rampant. It’s all blowing smoke.”
After an inmate who died after a beating from a handful of free-roaming prisoners, an 300-page internal investigation completed last year documented how officers have all but given up on trying to enforce proper safety and security policies because controlling inmates with broken locks is nearly impossible.
“I mean, we don’t allow (having multiple cells open at a time), but yes it’s the norm. We did it, because everyone (officers) allowed it. A lot of it is because we are so short staffed. The inmates continually access their doors,” according to one officer’s statement to investigators.
A handful of other officers made similar statements.
“We see this all of the time,” another officer said. “The cell doors don’t secure even with the pin. The moment we leave the pod the inmates access their cell doors.”
Just like surveillance videos of critical incidents, Schuster and Garcia said internal investigations, like that death case, also reach the director’s office.
“Everything that happens is brought to the director’s attention,” Schuster said. “He is that type of person who wants to see every video, wants to see all information…It all gets (to his office).”
In response to ABC15’s investigation Governor Doug Ducey has deployed a team of state law enforcement officials and administrative staff to deal with the problem.
Ducey also ordered an outside investigation that will be led by retired Arizona Supreme Court Justices Ruth McGregor and Rebecca Berch.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.