FLORENCE, AZ — On May 29, 2021, more than a dozen inmates trapped a pair of corrections officers inside a caged stairwell at the Florence prison.
Above them on a higher floor, there was a deal going down.
A collection of newly-leaked surveillance videos obtained by ABC15 shows the high-level of coordination and planning by prisoners to ensure that deal was completed.
The footage also reveals that inmates in Arizona prisons sometimes call the shots — and officials let them.
“It’s the inmates, as you can clearly see [who are running things here],” said Carlos Garcia, Executive Director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association. “This not me saying it. I’m not coming up with some hypothesis. The inmates are running it.”
The officers were pinned between the first and second floor of the stairwell for about a minute and half.
It wasn’t violent.
But video shows inmate leaders appear to rebuff an initial request from backup officers, who were apparently unaware some sort of exchange was happening on the third floor of cells.
In the end, the officers and inmates separate and nothing else was done.
Garcia said no inmates were disciplined.
“They held two staff hostage so they could finish passing whatever it was they were passing; and in the aftermath, nothing was done,” he said. “Nothing. Zero.”
ABC15 has reviewed multiple records and documents related to the incident but is not disclosing specifics to protect sources. An online database of inmate information shows that some of the key prisoners involved do not have any disciple listed from an incident on that date.
Garcia said it’s because of something called the “step down program.”
The “step down program” is problematic model that was highlighted in a 2019 outside investigation following a series of ABC15 reports into broken locks at the Lewis prison.
“At some point in 2019, supervisors at Lewis instituted a step down program, which used inmate "leaders" – those who had influence over other inmates – to help control inmate behavior and keep the peace,” the investigation stated. “These inmate leaders were rewarded by extra privileges and withholding discipline. These privileges reportedly made other inmates unhappy. When asked what makes inmates influential, interviewees told us that it was sometimes personality and often because of the inmates’ connections, such as gang leadership positions or affiliation.”
Through sources and other documentation, ABC15 learned that multiple inmates involved in the May 29 incident were former Lewis prisoners and have gang ties.
In response to a request for comment, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry issued the following statement:
"There was a brief incident when several inmates appeared to obstruct staff. As additional staff promptly arrived, the inmates dispersed. Eight inmates were initially issued formal disciplinary reports over the incident. The Unit Administration reviewed the incident and determined no formal disciplinary action was warranted. All inmates involved in the incident were reviewed and found to be appropriately classified and housed."
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.