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The Lewis Lock Incident:<br>A Call for Change in Arizona’s Correctional Facilities — Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections
Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry Unit in disarray after security incident with fire and debris showing in front of cells
ATAC

ATAC

The Lewis Lock Incident:
A Call for Change in Arizona’s Correctional Facilities

Explore the Lewis Lock Incident and infrastructure failures in Arizona's prison system, highlighting the urgent need for independent oversight.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry (ADCRR) has faced a series of issues, most notably the infamous Lewis Lock incident, which led to an independent investigation. Moreover, the department has also experienced an increase in correctional officer vacancies, raising concerns about the security and stability of their facilities. This article will explore the challenges faced by ADCRR and argue for independent oversight to address these problems effectively.

The Lewis Lock Incident: A Dangerous Situation

Leaked surveillance videos released to the media in 2019 exposed the hazardous conditions for residents and correctional officers at Lewis Prison in Arizona. The footage showed that multiple doors in the prison’s units did not lock, leaving officers and residents vulnerable to violent attacks. In a six-month period from June to December 2018, ABC15 obtained footage of six assaults that occurred. The Arizona Department of Corrections initially disputed the allegations that the doors were broken, instead claiming that the inmates were tampering with the doors.

Long standing Issues with Broken Locks

The leaked videos also revealed that the doors had been broken for at least five years, and numerous officers and administrators were aware of the issue but failed to fix it. The union representing the officers is attempting to determine how many staff members have been assaulted due to the broken doors. Insiders estimate that there have been at least 15 assaults in the past six months. Furthermore, the prison has seen at least one inmate’s death, with residents moving freely in and out of their cells without the assistance of officers.

Governor Ducey’s Investigation into the Lewis Lock Incident

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey hired two retired state Supreme Court justices, Rebecca White Berch and Ruth McGregor, to conduct an independent investigation into the broken cell door locks at Lewis Prison and to determine if similar problems exist in other state prisons. The Department of Corrections (DOC) placed padlocks on 1,000 high-security cells at Lewis Prison, which houses over 5,000 residents, after attempts to fix the broken locks failed[. The padlocks have raised concerns about inmate and staff safety during a fire evacuation. The DOC claimed that the residents had been tampering with cell door locks for approximately two years, and other fixes were ineffective.

Demands for Immediate Action

The Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association and an inmate rights group recently held a joint news conference demanding that the state immediately address the prison’s security problems. One inmate was killed, and two staff members were severely beaten in attacks attributed to the broken locks Donna Leone Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform stated that the department had documented problems with cell door locks for over 20 years, with a guard dying in a 1997 attack blamed on bad locks. Governor Ducey’s announcement came hours after the news conference, and he emphasized the need for facts and the prevention of similar situations in the future[^1^].

Findings of the Report: A “Surprisingly Uninformed” Director

A report by two former Arizona state Supreme Court justices found the outgoing director of Arizona’s prison system, Charles Ryan, to be “surprisingly uninformed” about broken cell locks at Lewis Prison, which had resulted in danger to residents and staff. The report concluded that if Ryan was not fully informed of the problem with prison locks, he still was responsible. Governor Doug Ducey ordered the independent investigation in April after it was reported that at least one Lewis prison inmate had died as a result of faulty locks and confirmed Ryan had been aware of the lock problems. The report included nine recommendations, such as better budgeting for the department, improved training, creating programs to enhance relationships between officers and supervisors, updated communications systems, and more modern prison administration techniques.

Evidence of Lock Issues Contributing to Assaults

The report found convincing evidence that the problem with locks contributed to multiple assaults on both residents and staff at the prison in Buckeye. The authors watched surveillance camera videos from inside Lewis Prison and noted the casualness with which residents left their cells. The presence of officers did not seem to deter the behavior, they wrote, and the videos seemed to confirm comments they had heard that broken or tampered locks were “part of prison life” inside the facility. The report also disclosed that prison administrators had attempted their own fixes, which sometimes had ill effects.

A History of Faulty Locks

Corrections officials knew as early as 1988 that certain prison locks were faulty. By the mid-1990s, they had requested money to fix them more than once. After the fatal stabbing of a Perryville corrections officer in 1997, the Legislature moved to shift $4.4 million in state funding to lock improvements. About 10 years later, lawmakers set aside another $10.4 million for lock upgrades and repairs]. However, the report said the Lewis Prison was only included in requests for capital funds for prison facility locking systems in 2011 through 2013, even as assaults and deaths resulted in part from the ability of residents to get out of their cells in subsequent years.

The Importance of Independent Oversight

The Lewis Lock incident highlights the crucial need for independent oversight in correctional facilities. Such oversight can help ensure that:

  • Incidents like the Lewis Lock situation are identified and addressed promptly
  • Proper standards are maintained within correctional facilities
  • Human rights are respected, and the dignity of prisoners is protected
  • An independent oversight body can provide an unbiased assessment of correctional facilities, ensuring that they operate in a manner consistent with the law and established best practices.

Failing Infrastructure and Staffing Shortages: A Recipe for Disaster

In addition to the Lewis Lock incident, the ADCRR has been grappling with failing infrastructure and staffing shortages. The department has experienced a significant increase in correctional officer vacancies in recent years, which has led to concerns about the security and stability of the facilities. When ADCRR Director David Shinn took office, he faced numerous challenges, including deteriorating infrastructure and understaffed facilities.

Consequences of Failing Infrastructure and Staffing Shortages

The combination of failing infrastructure and staffing shortages can have severe consequences for correctional facilities, including:

  • Increased risk of inmate-on-inmate violence
  • Difficulty in maintaining order and control within the facilities
  • Negative effects on the mental and physical well-being of both staff and residents

These issues underscore the urgent need for systemic improvements and increased funding to address the infrastructure and staffing problems within the ADCRR.

A Call for Systemic Improvements

Governor Katie Hobbs has acknowledged the need for systemic improvements within the ADCRR, stating that “Arizona’s correctional facilities have been in desperate need of systemic improvements for far too long. Years of failed leadership have left this institution without adequate resources and oversight.” In response to these issues, a federal court order has outlined a planned injunction against the ADCRR, signifying that significant changes must be made within the department.

Proposed Systemic Improvements

To address the issues faced by the ADCRR, several systemic improvements can be proposed, including:

  1. Codifying an independent oversight body: This organization would monitor the operations of correctional facilities and ensure that they adhere to the law and best practices.
  2. Investing in infrastructure upgrades: By allocating funds to repair and modernize facilities, the ADCRR can create a safer environment for both staff and residents.
  3. Implementing comprehensive staff training programs: Ensuring that correctional officers receive ongoing training can help maintain high standards of professionalism and reduce the likelihood of incidents like the Lewis Lock situation.
  4. Developing strategies to attract and retain qualified staff: Addressing the staffing shortages within the ADCRR requires efforts to recruit and retain correctional officers, such as offering competitive salaries and benefits packages.
  5. Promoting transparency and accountability: By adopting measures to make the ADCRR more transparent, the public can remain informed about the department’s operations and progress in addressing issues within the system.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry is currently facing significant challenges, as evidenced by the Lewis Lock incident and the ongoing issues with failing infrastructure and staffing shortages. The need for systemic improvements within the department is clear, and the implementation of independent oversight, infrastructure upgrades, staff training, and transparency measures is crucial for ensuring the safety and well-being of both staff and residents. By taking action to address these problems, the ADCRR can work towards creating a more just and humane correctional system in Arizona.

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