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Gov. Doug Ducey Launches Investigation Of Arizona Department Of Corrections

After reports of broken infrastructure and unsafe conditions at the Lewis Prison in Buckeye as first reported by ABC15, the Governor’s Office says it is conducting an investigation in the the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC).

Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for Gov. Doug Ducey, called the issues at Lewis Prison “deeply concerning” and said the Governor’s Office would act immediately.

“We are deploying a special team of law enforcement and management leaders, including professionals from the Departments of Public Safety, Homeland Security and Administration, as well as the state fire marshal to ensure immediate action is being taken by the Department of Corrections to protect the safety of officers and inmates,” Ptak said.

The Governor’s Office said “an outside review” is needed and was currently in the process of putting one together.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ducey’s office announced two former Arizona Supreme Court justices — Rebecca Berch and Ruth McGregor — would conduct “an independent, third-party investigation into matters of security."

Justice Berch said safe jails and prisons are an essential part of the Criminal Justice System.

“We can’t have a situation where the inmates lives are at risk from other inmates because we failed to secure them in their cells,” Berch said. “Punishment is supposed to be time safely and responsibly served. It’s not supposed to be some other form of physical punishment that you hadn’t anticipated.”

Justice Berch said the correctional officers (COs) also need to feel safe in their workplace. “Otherwise we’re not going to attract competent and qualified COs to work in our prisons. It’s important on every level,” she said.

Berch said she would start reviewing materials later this month and hoped to provide a review to the governor by the end of summer.

Ducey’s office said the justices "will provide an assessment of problems related to cell locks at Lewis, including the cause of tampered locks and action taken by ADC to address the situation, and will make recommendations regarding any changes in policy, procedure or operations they deem appropriate."

House Democrats at the state Legislature are calling for a “sea change” at the Arizona Department of Corrections. In a letter to the governor, four Democratic representatives called on ADC Director Charles Ryan to resign.

“Under Mr. Ryan's management, the Department of Corrections has become a dangerous place for state employees and contractors to work and equally unsafe for the inmates who are under the state's care in our prison system,” the letter states. “Mr. Ryan has been a poor steward of Arizona taxpayer money, has lost the public's trust, and should not spend another day in your administration.”

The legislators continue, saying Ryan should not be the only person held accountable.

“Those who would continue his poor oversight, lack of effective management, and disdain for the public dollars entrusted to them must also be removed from their positions at Department of Corrections,” the letter states.

Andrew Wilder, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said Ryan toured the Lewis Prison for three days this weekend.

“He observed the temporary installation of padlocks on all close-custody cells at the Morey, Buckley and Rast units,” Wilder said. “Director Ryan spent much of his time walking and talking with our officers and inmates to personally discuss the agency’s immediate and ongoing efforts to prevent lock tampering and assess what impact, if any, this is having on operational practices.”

Wilder said three units have had installation work completed and remaining work on the locks continued Monday.

“The agency also has been working closely with the state fire marshal, and continues to do so, in order to ensure that emergency evacuation procedures are adequate and in compliance with all applicable rules, regulations, and laws” Wilder said.

He called the installation of the padlocks temporary.

“The agency is actively assessing permanent long-term solutions,” Wilder said.

Republican lawmaker Representative John Kavanagh said he still had confidence in Director Ryan.

"He's been a veteran for 30 years and knows the system well,” Kavanagh said of Ryan’s time at ADC. “I have no reason to believe he did anything wrong. I'm not about to throw a good director under the bus.”

In a letter to Director Ryan, the Office of the State Fire Marshal commented on the padlocking of the doors:

"Whereas the State Fire Code does not permit the locking systems that have been put into place, with proper safety measures, under a temporary condition; there are means of accepting the processes that have been implemented," wrote Acting Assistant Director Josiah Brant. "It is fully understood that there is a need to balance life safety as well as general safety when it comes to institutional facilities and the Codes do allow for locking arrangements that may otherwise be prohibited."

Brant said his office made a staff visit provided concerns to the prison warden.

"Although, the implemented solution is not ideal; based on my observations and information provided today, OSFM is willing to accept the procedures that are being put into place," Brant said. He said those procedures include "installing additional fire protection devices, adequate personnel with keys to open cell locks and doors, alternative methods to open the locks, and regular drills to ensure proficiency in opening the cell doors." The Fire Marshal's Office said ADC would have one week to complete training on the new procedures.

Kavanagh suggested the door locking problems were unsubstantiated and "could be political in nature."

"They've been asking for money for locks for a long time,” Kavanagh said of ADC, “and we've been giving money for locks, but it's been slow because of the recession."

Kavanagh said he thought Director Ryan was prioritizing resources. "Until there's more facts, I'll certainly keep my powder dry."

House Republicans issued a statement Thursday saying "Any policy that threatens the security of corrections officers is completely unacceptable, and we are deeply troubled by reports regarding Lewis Prison. We strongly urge the Department of Corrections to immediately take the necessary steps to address the issue," the statement said. The Republican lawmakers said they were encouraged by Ducey's announcement of an investigation "and we stand ready to take any legislative action that may be needed.”

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.