NewsLocal NewsInvestigations

Actions

Whistleblower alleges cover-up attempts at Lewis Prison over broken door locks

Posted: 1:21 PM, May 17, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-18 11:49:43-04
Lewis Prison unlocked doors

PHOENIX — The whistleblower who leaked surveillance videos obtained by ABC15 showing how many cells inside Buckeye’s Lewis Prison don’t lock is now revealing herself and alleging more corruption inside Arizona’s prison system.

Arizona Correctional Sergeant Gabriela Contreras released a “whistleblowing disclosure” that states managers at Lewis Prison instructed ADC employees to alter reports to “under-report the scope of the broken door problem” after ABC15's original story was released.

Null

According to the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, falsifying public records can be a federal offense.

Sgt. Contreras also sat down with ABC15 in an exclusive interview to discuss why she downloaded and leaked the video and why she’s unveiling her identity to the public.

[Watch Contreras interview with ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing in the video player above and read key excepts at the bottom of the story.]

In Contreras’s disclosure, addressed to Gov. Doug Ducey, she says that after the first report was released, she overheard Deputy Warden Travis Scott talk about firing her to several employees, including the Lewis Complex warden.

“I understand the only reason I wasn't fired is that the Lewis Complex warden is under the impression that your office [Gov. Ducey] warned ADC not to retaliate against employees.”

RELATED: ABC15 discovered that the broken doors led to one inmate’s death last year

Sgt. Contreras says she was originally hopeful that the issues being investigated would be resolved, but says the same people that failed to report the issues are still not focused on the safety of officers and inmates.

“Unfortunately, the same people who deliberately ignored Morey security issues are now interfering with your effort to address the situation.”

According to Sgt. Contreras, Deputy Warden Scott instructed security to not let employees leave until they made modifications to paperwork that disclosed deficiencies in the prison doors.

FULL COVERAGE: Broken prison cell doors exposed at Lewis Prison after ABC15 investigation

"He told us that we were only to count the cell doors that opened on their own when the padlock was removed - and that we should not have included cell doors that opened with a slight jiggle or push..."

She goes on to say that she believes the deputy warden is intentionally minimizing significant issues, “presenting you with false and/or misleading information and falsifying public records.”

Sgt. Contreras ends the disclosure by saying that if deficiencies are under-reported, her fear is that all of the broken cell doors will not get repaired, leaving officers and inmates exposed to “unacceptable and unsafe” conditions.

Read Contreras' full disclosure letter sent to Gov. Ducey here.

In a statement, Director Charles Ryan said, “Retaliation is not acceptable. Our officers and personnel should never be afraid to raise concerns, and when they do, we want them addressed. We will be fully looking into this issue.”

ABC15 INTERVIEW WITH SGT. CONTRERAS

The following contains key excerpts from Sgt. Contrera’s interview with ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing, along with some extra information and context.

BISCOBING: Why did you decide to go in and download these videos and leak them out?
CONTRERAS: Because it’s a crime, what they were doing: allowing this to happen, allowing staff to get hurt, and not doing anything about it.
BISCOBING: So you had enough?
CONTRERAS: I had enough.

Sgt. Contreras said she tried for months to report issues with the doors by filling out inspection forms, filing reports, sending emails to her bosses and top administrators.

CONTRERAS: All of those were ignored. So I had no other choice but to stand up for my officers and for my staff. I tried to put a stop to it.
BISCOBING: You tried to report the broken doors up the chain?
CONTRERAS: Correct.
BISCOBING: And did anything happen?
CONTRERAS: No.

She said one of the final triggers was when Director Charles Ryan and other top executives toured Lewis Prison and checked the doors late last year. Sgt. Contreras estimates that was in November.

CONTRERAS: I would say they came out in November, right after one of the assaults took place.
BISCOBING: One of the assaults in the videos that leaked out?
CONTRERAS: I believe so….(Director Ryan) walked the units and pulled the pins, and checked the doors.

Sgt. Contreras said the team spoke with inmates.

CONTRERAS: Basically trying to negotiate on keeping them in their cells. They were offering maybe better programming, clothing…Pretty much telling them we will give all of that but we can’t have you assaulting staff and coming out of your cells.
BISCOBING: Hey, what do you guys want? We will give you some things if you stop coming out of your cells and beating up our staff?
CONTRERAS: Pretty much, yes.

After that, she gave up hope.

CONTRERAS: That’s when it really hit me. Wow, they’re really not going to do anything about it.

Before Contreras leaked the videos, she got caught and was suspended for a week for downloading the footage.

BISCOBING: So they punish you. Did they actually do anything to fix the problem you risked your career to expose?
CONTRERAS: No. They actually made me feel like I was the criminal. That I did something very wrong.

After ABC15 exposed the leaked videos, Director Ryan ordered the emergency padlocking of up to 1,000 cells, more than 700 inmates were shipped out of Lewis prison, and the Governor ordered an outside investigation and promised to get the problem fixed.

BISCOBING: If you didn’t leak those videos, do you think any of this would have happened?
CONTRERAS: No.
BISCOBING: So you think the only reason they’re doing anything is because we embarrassed them?
CONTRERAS: Yes.

In Sgt. Contreras’s whistleblower disclosure, she wrote that some doors open themselves once a padlock is removed.

BISCOBING: First of all, there are doors where you open the padlock and they just open themselves?
CONTRERAS: Correct.
BISCOBING: Those locks don’t work at all?
CONTRERAS: No.
BISCOBING: So when the department told me early in the process of my reporting that they “firmly dispute” the doors don’t lock at all, that wasn’t true?
CONTRERAS: Correct.

She said in her unit, Morey, there are dozens of blatantly broken doors that don’t lock, and inmates are able to easily tamper with and manipulate the rest.

CONTRERAS: I would say every single door in my unit can be tampered and manipulated to be opened from the inside of the cell or the outside of the cell.
BISCOBING: There’s a way for inmates to open every single door in Morey?
CONTRERAS: Every single door.
BISCOBING: Like hundreds of doors?
CONTRERAS: Every single door.
BISCOBING: Like 400 doors?
CONTRERAS: Yes.

--

BISCOBING: You’re choosing to put your face out there. You’re putting a name and a face to the person who was brave enough to leak these videos. Why are you putting your name out there?
CONTRERAS: Because staff need to stand up, they need to speak out and not be afraid….I want them to see me, I did it, and them not to be afraid that now is the time that they need to be together, to make a change we need to stand up, put our foot down, and say enough is enough.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at dave@abc15.com .