KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Arizona Inmates Allege Civil Rights Abuses In Aftermath Of Deadly Yuma Prison Riot

Thirty-seven people were injured. One man died. The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) officially calls what happened at the state prison in Yuma on March 1, 2018, a “disturbance.” But recently released videos, court documents, internal reports and interviews with several inmates describe a dangerous and chaotic riot.

The Riot

Joshua Fecht was walking from his job as a kitchen helper in the Cheyenne Unit of the Yuma prison to his dormitory around 6 p.m. when he saw a fellow inmate being taken off the yard in handcuffs. Fecht said the inmate was yelling and smelled of alcohol. He saw him resisting the correctional officers that were escorting him as they walked past.

“About five or six correctional officers pushed him to the ground and started assaulting him,” Fecht said. He said other inmates nearby, noticing the excessive force, intervened and started attacking the correctional officers.

Fecht said not all inmates took part in the riot, but many had no choice. “I had to participate,” Fecht said. “Because if I hadn’t, and I was confronted about it, I would have had a green light on myself.” Fecht says racial tensions and affiliations within the prison sometimes dictate actions an inmate has to take. “It’s a political force,” he said. “You’re either with us or against us type of thing and it’s a horrible feeling to be put in those situations.”

Inmate Lawrence Rhodes also saw the guards struggling with the inmate, who had become intoxicated on prison-made alcohol.

“They threw him on the ground, picked up him up, and then threw him on the ground again — just roughin' him up,” Rhodes said. He, like many inmates, says he did not get involved in the ensuing melee.

“I didn’t do nothin'," Rhodes said. "I just stood there. I’m 47 years old. It ain't no way I can get in a riot.”

According to an executive summary prepared by the Arizona Department of Corrections: “As the inmate was being escorted off the yard, a large group of inmates ran to the location and began to assault staff.” The report says the correctional officers were able to escape from the assault and secure themselves inside a building.

“At the same time, most of the South Yard inmate population began participating in assaultive behavior by throwing rocks at staff,” the report continues. “The incident continued to escalate into a major disturbance as inmates gained access to officer stations by breaking through the ceiling.”

ADC staff was forced to evacuate to positions on top of the buildings of the complex through escape hatches while awaiting reinforcements. The report says “Two Designated Armed Response Teams (DART) were deployed, and the Tactical Support Unit (TSU) was activated. Outside Law Enforcement Agencies were contacted and responded to the Yuma Complex.”

Deadly Response

It would be three hours before the riot was contained. ADC says 125 inmates were eventually moved off the unit “due to their participation in the disturbance.”

Inmate Sean Howland says things escalated quickly. “I seen the drunk guy fightin' with the guards,” he said. “Next thing you know all the inmates got set off.”

Howland says he saw inmates and guards running everywhere in total chaos. At one point, several inmates got together and pushed down a fence. “And all of a sudden, I hear a shotgun go off, and one of my friends gets shot right in the back and he’s bleedin' out the mouth.”

Inmate Adam Coppa would die from his injuries. A redacted report from ADC states an inmate “was fatally shot by a 12 gauge 00 Buckshot round.”

Joshua Fecht said he was friends with Coppa, who was approaching the end of his sentence. “I would describe it as, he kinda lost his mind,” Fecht said of seeing Coppa advance with other inmates toward the Correctional Officers. Coppa’s court records show he was referred for a mental health examination to determine if he was mentally competent before his sentencing. Fecht did not believe Coppa would have been attempting to escape.

It’s unclear how many rounds of live ammunition were fired during the Yuma riot. The report cites “Unregulated delivery and issuance of weapons and munitions including 00 Buckshot.”

ADC staff reported “going to the Armory with the direction ‘bring all of the ammunition,’ and once the ammunition was on the Cheyenne Unit, it was delivered to the spline and ‘whoever needed it, took it.’” The report says it took several days for a full accounting of all the ammunition stating 15 rounds of 00 Buckshot were “not immediately returned to the Armory.”

Correctional officers also used CS gas and pepper balls against the inmates, who threw rocks, lit fires and advanced on the officers in groups with makeshift shields.

ADC’s own assessment of the response shows there was a lack of clear leadership and no defined chain of command. “The ICS Principle of Unity of Command, which requires each individual involved in incident operations to be assigned to only one supervisor, was not deployed,” the ADC report states.

The review concludes that there were several officers giving orders to “multiple staff outside their scope of control. Some staff believed that DW Zaragoza was in Command; however, none of the staff interviewed indicated that he provided any direction.”

ADC’s assessment of the riot states “communication failures” also led to a breakdown in the perimeter security of the unit.

“Ingress/Egress on and off the Unit was unrestricted, allowing for Law Enforcement responders to enter the Unit with lethal munitions,” the report states. The assessment also describes a long list of faulty, aging and porous gates and fencing at the prison.

“The gates throughout the facility were misaligned, sagging, or difficult to open” the report states. “A review of the key control report does not indicate a physical inspection of locking devices was conducted monthly.”

5 Days On The Yard

“The worst part was the aftermath,” said Trent Bouhdida, one of more than 1,100 men who were detained on the Cheyenne recreation yard in the open air for the next five days.

Bouhdida collected signatures from 70 fellow inmates who allege they were the victims of civil rights abuses during the time the entire Cheyenne unit was detained outside.

The inmates claim they were unable to shower, exposed to extreme climate conditions, and had little access to drinking water while they were held on the recreation yard from March 1 through March 5.

The letter describes how officers patrolling the yard used excessive force: “Dirt naps for talking. Dogs in face. Boots on backs. Threatening and intimidating with shotguns.”

Johnathon Gutierrez has lived in the Cheyenne Unit at Yuma for more than two years. He says he was held on the prison yard recreation field for five days. “The first night, our hands were zip tied behind our backs,” he said. Gutierrez said the zip ties caused him to lose feeling in his hands. “And there were no restrooms so there were inmates urinating and pooping on themselves,” he said.

Attorneys for the inmates found that ADC eventually supplied six portable toilets for the 1,100 men.

Gutierrez says he witnessed six or seven people each day “falling out” and having seizures because the inmates were not getting their proper medications. He said the older inmates suffered the most. “Those are the ones I felt sorry for,” Gutierrez said, “because it was really cold at night and they were shivering really bad."

“It was cold. You froze at night. You was freezin' your butt off,” said inmate Sean Howland. “I mean shiverin'. They gave us two blankets: one for the ground and one to cover up with.”

Howland says he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and takes medication for epilepsy twice a day to prevent seizures.

“I basically couldn’t get my medicines for a while, and I had a seizure so bad I fell straight out of my shoes,” Howland said, recalling waking up in a hospital with no recollection of how he’d gotten there.

Lawrence Rhodes saw Howland having seizures.

“He’s fallin' out and it took them an hour just to come and see him,” Rhodes said. “Just to come and check on him.” Rhodes said he was also not given his medicine for seizures, asthma and high blood pressure for four days.

“I just sat there, and I cried because it was so horrible,” Rhodes said.

Several inmates complained of intimidation, threats and abuse from the teams that were brought in to guard them on the yard. Several claim that officers encouraged their dogs to urinate and defecate on the inmates and their belongings.

Rhodes said the ground, where his face was constantly pushed, smelled of dog poop.

Joshua Fecht said that “Absolutely 100 percent there was intimidation.” He said the guards would point their guns at the inmates as they walked among them. He claims he was pushed face down in the dirt with a gun put to his head.

Prison Law Office Attorney Corene Kendrick interviewed dozens of inmates from the riot who made the same allegations, which she detailed in an advocacy letter filed in federal court.

“I absolutely believe prisoners’ accounts of the widespread group punishment, denial of medical and mental health care,” Kendrick said. “We reviewed prisoners’ medical records after we interviewed them during our April visit, and the records confirmed the allegations that people with chronic medical conditions or mental illness did not get their medications, and people with disabilities did not have their assistive devices with them.”

Kendrick says the Yuma riot is similar to an incident that occurred at the Safford prison in 1995. “ADC responded similarly to a disturbance (forcing people to sleep outside for days, denial of health care, limited access to food, water, and toilets), and the 9th Circuit Court ruled in a 2000 decision  that such treatment by prison officials was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment,” Kendrick said.

Correctional Officers Fired

The trauma from the riot is still so real for Karlo Rivas that he stutters every time he tries to describe it.

“There was an inmate that was shot in front of me,” he said. “I pulled him aside and did CPR on the kid, but unfortunately he was deceased already.”

Rivas was a correctional officer (CO) at the Cheyenne Unit. He says he’d been with ADC since 2004 and made it through several riots over the years. Rivas says he was assaulted on the job in 2010 and has been treated for post traumatic stress disorder.

Like many CO’s at Yuma, Rivas believes the riot was planned. The ADC assessment states that many officers told their higher-ups they suspected a riot was inevitable, but the administrators did not act on the warnings.

In the weeks before the riot, a fake inmate letter was delivered under an officer’s door saying “word on the yard is the Mexicans and the white boys are to start a riot cause of the integration they have been collecting knives for the occasion.”

ADC labels the letter as “ fictitious” and does not explain its origin in their internal reporting.

But Rivas said everyone at the facility knew something was coming. He claims an inmate told him not to come into work on March 1 specifically because there was going to be a riot.

Rivas says he told his chain of command but nothing was done.

After Adam Coppa was shot, Rivas said he rushed to perform CPR, but was instructed to leave the body and retrieve an extinguisher to put out the fires that had grown around the prison.

He only remembered coming to Coppa’s aid months later in therapy. Rivas says he was ordered to stop performing CPR on Coppa, but he was not properly replaced by medical personnel. Rivas claims he was then made to lie about it on an ADC report.

He says his management told him “make sure you don’t write in your report that you were not properly relieved.” Rivas said his report of the incident was typed by someone else and printed for him to sign.

After finishing the report, Rivas said he went back to the yard. “There were other buildings that were on fire,” he said. “It looked like a friggin' movie. It was complete chaos.”

Rivas says despite an ADC policy that officers involved in a riot are supposed to be taken off the yard, he stayed on to help in the aftermath. He says while looking for fire extinguishers, he saw inmates had wrapped their televisions with blankets. Rivas says he interpreted this as another sign that the inmates knew a potentially destructive riot would take place in advance.

“I got so mad and so frustrated that these guys just had this kid killed and meanwhile they knew it was going to happen and they are protecting their property. I got so mad I grabbed like three TVs and I threw them on the ground," he said.

Rivas said by the time he damaged the TVs he had been working for about 15 hours and then worked another 6 hours on the cleanup. He says he went home, took a shower, and came back to work, at which point he was approached about his conduct.

“They called me in and asked me what was my intention for doing that,” he said. “And I told them ‘You know what, I’m exhausted. I’m not even thinking right. I’m just — I’m beat.”

Rivas and five other correctional officers were fired and criminally charged for destroying inmate property. Rivas and one other officer were charged with felonies.

Rivas says he’s been seeing a counselor who has helped him understand that his PTSD from earlier riots contributed to his reaction at Yuma.

“I ended up doing something that was out of character for me,” he said. “When they asked me why I did it, I said ‘To tell you the truth, I don’t know, but I’m going to figure it out.’”

ADC says in total there were 145 inmate televisions “that had physical damage consistent with intentional acts of destruction by staff. Most televisions that were inspected had boot prints. In addition, several other items of inmate property (food items, blankets, fans, etc.) were damaged or destroyed.” The report shows ADC replaced the 145 televisions at a cost of $28,275.

The disturbance assessment lists a total cost of damages incurred during the riot and expenses incurred afterward of more than $500,000.

Johnathon Gutierrez said when inmates were finally allowed to return to their cells, it looked like a war zone. “We came back in and TVs were broken, our fans were broken,” he said.

Trent Bouhdida is representing himself in an appeal, but all of his legal documentation was taken from his cell. “Envelopes that I had from loved ones were ripped up and my son’s pictures were thrown all over the place,” he said.

Lawrence Rhodes lost a TV and a radio, but he doesn’t care about the items he can replace from the commissary. “I had pictures of my kids. I had pictures of me and my wife. I had pictures of me and my grandkids, me and my mom,” Rhodes says through tears, “and they tore 'em up.”

Ready To Go Off

ADC’s internal report does not draw a final conclusion for the cause of the riot. The assessment notes “the majority of staff had the perception that this incident was caused by the implementation of “Integrated Housing Program,” a policy which involves housing inmates of a different race together. But the ADC report, as well as all inmates interviews conducted by KJZZ, downplay the significance of race in the riot.

“The inmates unanimously stated that this incident was over the perception of the excessive use of force by staff to control one inmate,” the report states. “The inmates emphatically stated that this was NOT a pre-planned event, and that once the disturbance started, an almost ‘mob’ mentality took over.”

Kendrick said all inmates she spoke with believed the excessive use of force against an inmate was the cause.

“One man I interviewed told me, ‘This wasn’t a black on white, or white on Hispanic, thing. We were united. This was purely orange on brown,’ referring to the color of the inmate jumpsuits and officers’ uniforms,” Kendrick said.

Johnathon Gutierrez said he believes the riot was spontaneous.

“Inmates don’t tolerate COs using force on us,” he said.

Lawrence Rhodes said there were other factors at play as well.

“They was frustrated,” he said of his fellow inmates. “They was tired of getting locked down. 'Cause we get locked down on Cheyenne every time they find a bottle of hooch.”

The ADC report noted that there was a large amount of prison-made alcohol confiscated: “120 gallons of homemade alcohol in a six-month period.”

According to the report, such violations would lead to revocation of inmates visitation privileges, even though there was no correlation.

“They don’t know how to treat an inmate. I was treated like a dog. I was treated like I was nothing." — Lawrence Rhodes, inmate

“There appears to be an inordinate amount of inmates on some form of restricted visitation,” the report states. “It appears that Administration is utilizing 29 visitation as a management tool to combat homemade alcohol even though there is no evidence that the ingredients are coming through visitation.”

The ADC assessment said the warden "established critical minimum numbers for the entire Complex, and in particular the Cheyenne Unit, that are unrealistic," but the report stated staffing did not play a contributory role in the riot."

All inmates that were interviewed believed there should be more communication training for Correctional Officers.

Lawrence Rhodes said it comes down to basic respect. “They don’t know how to treat an inmate,” he said. “I was treated like a dog. I was treated like I was nothing. I’m hurtin' all over because they did my life over.”

“I honestly feel disrespected by a lot of different staff here, but I just try to keep a positive attitude and take it a day at a time,” said Trent Bouhdida. “But I feel like there are certain people that treat us less than human just because we’re incarcerated or wearing a different color than them."

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.