FLORENCE, AZ — Less than a year after two men escaped a Florence prison, another Arizona prison had a near miss, as an inmate disappeared and jumped two fences in an apparent escape attempt, according to a report obtained by ABC15.
Last week, ABC15 investigator Melissa Blasius exposed the security failures and staffing shortages that led up to a January 2021 escape from Florence Prison's South Unit. John Charpiot and David Harmon were captured after a five-day manhunt.
Charpiot and Harmon's escape was the tip of the iceberg, according to Carlos Garcia, the executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association. He compared the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry to the Titanic, only worse.
"There’s not one hole; there’s like 20 to 30 holes," Garcia said. "The owners of the ship do not want to fix the holes, so what they have is two staff going around with Dixie cups trying to get the water out."
Garcia said the prison problems put staff, inmates, and members of the public in jeopardy.
Corrections director David Shinn has refused a sit-down interview with ABC15, but he did send a statement saying, "We take our responsibilities seriously and we are very proud of our record. Over the past 10 years, there have been only three escapes at our facilities."
Shinn testified about chronic understaffing at an Arizona House subcommittee hearing in January.
"We are down 1,800 correctional officers, which essentially is two-and-a-half complexes throughout the state," Shinn said. An ADCRR spokesperson said that number now sits at 1,900 vacancies.
Multiple sources told ABC15 Lewis Prison in Buckeye was so short-staffed one day that Warden John Mattos was seen filling in at the front gate. ADCRR would not confirm or deny those reports. Director Shinn did explain to the subcommittee how shortages hinder prison operations.
“We have correctional officer IIIs, your program providers, to fill security posts, or we’re also using sergeants to fill security posts," Shinn said.
Inmate Ryan Lindstrom, in prison for aggravated assault, tried to escape from Lewis Prison four months ago, according to a prison report leaked to ABC15.
According to the record, a correctional officer counted Lindstrom as "inside" his dorm building at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. even though he left unnoticed at 2:46 a.m.
Lindstrom got over two fences to an area under construction on October 2. He hid there for five hours before staff became aware of his location, according to the report.
“That’s called getting out,” Garcia said. “He didn’t complete the transaction, by another grace of God, but we should be concerned because this can happen at any prison.“
The report, an administrative inquiry, asked why a correctional officer did not secure the run and outer door, whether he actually conducted his counts, and whether he used the prison’s inmate tracking system appropriately.
“There’s a lot of people that are just worn out,” explained a current ADCRR employee to ABC15. Concerned about retribution from his bosses, he asked ABC15 to disguise his appearance and voice.
He said one correctional officer sometimes must watch more than 250 inmates in two separate dorm buildings.
“They have to do all of these jobs every single day, and they're exhausted,“ the employee said. “They don't have a positive outlook on the situation, so therefore, their performance is going to deteriorate over time.”
Several ADCRR insiders told ABC15 that correctional officers are quitting to work at Maricopa County’s jail or private prisons.
“If you can drive down the street in Florence and see a sign that says you can make $51,000 here working in our private prison while you're only making $40,000 that's a big game-changer,” the disguised employee said.
To help with retention and recruitment, Shinn is asking for the state legislature to approve a 20%, permanent pay raise for many ADCRR employees.
If passed, the average correctional officer’s salary would increase from $45,000 a year to $54,000.
“I don’t care where you get that your money, pay the staff,” Garcia said.
Full statement from ADCRR Director David Shinn:
"I am tremendously grateful to Governor Doug Ducey for providing critical resources to the Department for recruiting, hiring, and retaining qualified men and women - our greatest resource. This has included a 20% stipend through the end of this fiscal year for our front-line staff and 28 million in building renewal funding. These funds allow us to implement critical improvements including fence structures, reinforced gates, additional detection systems, and enhanced storage system requirements.
The Executive historic proposed budget for FY2023 would make the stipends permanent and would help us to recruit and retain outstanding men and women for crucial public safety positions while also providing 32.6 million in building renewal funding. These resources are critical to ADCRR's ability to sustain our mission and provide solutions to key challenges in recruitment, retention, and much-needed infrastructure improvements. ADCRR is committed to the safety of our communities, prison personnel, and the men and women in our custody. We take our responsibilities seriously and we are very proud of our record. Over the past 10 years, there have been only three escapes at our facilities. Public safety is — and always will be — our top priority."
Got a news tip? Email ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius at Melissa.Blasius@abc15.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.