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Are Arizona prisons ready for 18-year-old corrections officers?

Lewis Prison guard
Posted at 5:24 PM, May 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-02 10:50:36-04

Pinal County is the heart of the state's prison industry. County, state, federal and private prisons all operate here.

"In my community in Coolidge these are our family, aunts and uncles, moms and dads," Republican State Representative Thomas "T.J." Shope said.

Soon, Shope will be able to add sons and daughters to the list. At the request of the Department of Corrections, the legislature voted to lower the hiring age from 21 to 18 to deal with the shortage of corrections officers in our prisons. Governor Ducey signed the bill earlier this month.

Like many of his constituents, Shope saw the video ABC15 first discovered of Lewis Prison inmates coming and going from their cells at will. Endangering not only fellow inmates, but correctional officers.

"In communities, frankly where I represent, Florence, Coolidge, Casa Grande, Eloy, where this is ingrained in the community, I don't think it's a big shift to go from 21 to 18," Shope said. "However, I do know folks are concerned just like we are concerned here at the House."

In response to the ABC 15 investigation, Governor Ducey announced the state hired former Arizona Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Berch and Ruth McGregor to conduct an independent, third-party investigation into problems related to the broken cell locks at Lewis Prison in Buckeye.

Separately, Ducey’s office launched a state probe with a team of law enforcement officials, including members of Homeland Security, Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Arizona Fire Marshal office.

"This is a public safety concern in my opinion," said Republican State Senator Paul Boyer.

Boyer, who met with representatives from the Governor's office Wednesday believes emergency funds need to be allocated immediately to fix or replace every lock at the Lewis Prison.

"We need to make sure inmates are kept in their cells when they're supposed to and staff is protected,” Boyer said.

Democrats have called for Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan to either resign or be fired. Republicans support the Governor's decision to wait until the investigations are complete before making a decision. Endorsements of Ryan from individual legislators are lukewarm at best.

If he was confronted by a parent of an 18-year-old corrections officer, Ahwatukee State Senator Sean Bowie said, "I would tell them right now I wouldn't have confidence they would be safe in those prisons and that's a problem."