Corrections officers fired amid AZ suicide probe

Posted at 7:13 AM, Apr 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-15 19:43:40-04

Investigations into two inmate suicides in Arizona prisons have resulted in the firings of 13 guards and sergeants and discipline against six other employees for failing to conduct security checks and then lying and covering up their mistakes.

The state Corrections Department announced the action Friday in response to a female inmate's 2015 suicide and a male prisoner's death in February.

In one case, guards were hanging out inside an air conditioned control room -- eating meals and socializing -- instead of walking the unit to check on inmates. During that time, a female inmate killed herself after her cell block hadn't been checked on for nearly three hours.

In the other case, guards had turned in their keys and radios and were unable to quickly respond to a male inmate who committed suicide.

"Our investigations uncovered troubling instances of neglect of duty and other serious misconduct by some employees which, as a public safety agency, we cannot and will not tolerate," Corrections Director Charles Ryan said in a statement.

Ryan's agency has been under scrutiny for a series of embarrassing episodes in recent years.

A female teacher in a prison was raped after being left alone in a room full of sex offenders in 2014, and she went on to win $3 million from the state in a lawsuit. A private prison near Kingman was the site of violent and destructive riots over the July 4 weekend last year, and state staff had to be rushed in to help quell the riot. The agency also faced backlash over a 2014 execution that lasted nearly two hours and led to lawsuits over how the state carries out capital punishment. The state also is being sued by eight officers who allege understaffing and poor maintenance led to assaults and injuries.

In the recent cases, investigations found numerous instances of neglect of duty and violations of the department's policies and ethics code by prison guards and their supervisors.

According to investigation reports, guards at the Perryville prison in Goodyear hadn't checked on inmate Cynthia Apkaw for nearly three hours when a woman in an adjacent cell called for someone to check on her. The 25-year-old was serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated assault and weapons violations when she was found on August 25.

An investigation showed guards in the maximum security unit that houses many inmates with mental health issues had falsified logs showing they made required checks every 30 minutes and had not checked on inmates in her tier for nearly three hours. Instead, guards were in a control room.

The reports quote Deputy Warden Carol Ortiz as telling investigators "My staff poured out of the control room like ants" when the emergency call for help went out. She received a letter of reprimand.

In the Feb. 15 incident in Florence, inmate Scott Saba, 45, was found by corrections officers who were making a last check before going off duty at 6 a.m. An investigation found the guards had turned in their keys and radios early and were unable to call for help or quickly get into the cell after he hanged himself.

More than two hours before he was found hanging, Saba asked another guard for a health referral, and letters found in his cell after his death showed he was under mental duress.

Saba began serving time for organized retail theft, drug violations and other crimes in 2014 and had an expected release date in 2020. He had worked on a prison wildland firefighting crew and had only one minor infraction in prison.

Just two days before his death, he tried to make 56 calls to his family. Inmates said Saba appeared to be acting paranoid.

Saba's mother, Marion Saba of Scottsdale, said in a brief interview that her son was struggling in prison and she wants to see changes in how the prison system takes care of people with mental health issues.

"We just don't want this to happen to any other family," Saba said Friday. "That's our main goal."

The family is still trying to learn more about his death and hasn't decided whether legal action is warranted, said the family's lawyer, Scott Zwillinger.

The six employees disciplined included three correctional officers, two lieutenants and a deputy warden, and the discipline action range from letters of reprimand to suspensions without pay.

In addition, two additional employees received "corrective action with a letter of instruction," the department said.