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Arizona prison system gets approval to begin replacing broken cell locks

This undated photo provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections shows a cell door in Lewis prison west of Phoenix, with an added pin and padlock to keep inmates from opening it when locked. The department received approval Tuesday, June 18, 2019, to spend $15.7 million to replace cell lock at a prison west of Phoenix and plans to do the same at a Yuma prison. ( Arizona Department of Corrections via AP)

PHOENIX – The Arizona Department of Corrections received legislative approval Tuesday to begin replacing cell door locks, fire alarms and air conditioning at two state prisons after a contentious meeting where Democrats criticized the prisons director for allowing the systems to deteriorate.

The move to start the first phase of the nearly $46 million plan came just two months after the department was rocked by revelations that inmates at the Lewis prison complex west of Phoenix were able to open their locked cell doors and attack corrections officers and other prisoners.

One inmate died last year and two guards suffered severe injuries. The Yuma prison has similar lock issues.

A joint legislative committee that reviews capital spending approved $17.7 million for new locks and fire systems at the Lewis prison.

Approval is still needed for Lewis to get a new $11.3 million air conditioning system starting next March. Similar work at the Yuma prison starting in July 2020 is expected to cost $13.8 million.

Democrats were incensed at being forced to scramble to fund repairs of cell door lock systems that corrections chief Charles Ryan allegedly knew were being defeated by inmates since at least 2017.

The report they were presented showed that the fire alarms and systems designed to remove smoke from cell blocks had been broken for at least a decade.

“In the Department of Corrections, your job is to keep people who have been sentenced off the streets,” Democratic Sen. Charlene Fernandez told Ryan. “Why have you not come before us to tell us how critical this is?”

Ryan said the Lewis and Yuma lock issues were fairly new. He said it has been well known for years that the department has struggled to maintain its facilities.

“The safety of our staff and our employees, our officers, in our No. 1 priority. In terms of the allocation that is provided to us, it is limited,” Ryan said.

He noted that on average the prison system has received $5.6 million a year over the past decade for fixing its facilities, and money has had to be redirected to critical repairs.

“There’s over 1,500 buildings in the state prison system,” Ryan said. “$5.6 million is not sufficient to take care of and maintain all of those structures.”

Republican lawmakers defended Ryan, with Sen. David Gowan noting that the Great Recession had decimated infrastructure funding.

The problems with locks at the Lewis prison came to light in April when video leaked to Phoenix television station ABC15 showed prisoners attacking a guard.

Prison officials had been putting pins in doors to keep prisoners from defeating their locking mechanisms since 2017, and starting early this year locks were added to about 1,000 cells at the prison.

The department plans to retrofit those cells, and those with similar locks at the Yuma prison that also have padlocks, at a cost of $12,000 to $13,000 per door.

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