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Independent report released on broken locks at Phoenix-area prison

PHOENIX – The results of an independent investigation into broken locks and other problems at a Phoenix-area prison were released Thursday, with recommendations addressing training, funding and other issues.

In a timeline, the report says problems with doors at Lewis Prison were first noted as early as 2010, but discussions about repairs didn’t begin until 2017.

The probe was commissioned by Gov. Doug Ducey on April 30 of this year following news reports of serious security lapses at the facility.

It was conducted by former Arizona Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Berch and Ruth McGregor.

“Their report provides a detailed and clear assessment of the factors contributing to the lock issues at Lewis prison,” Ducey said in a press release. “When my office was made aware of these issues, we immediately established a task force of public safety and administrative personnel to ensure all actions were being taken to ensure the safety of all individuals at Lewis.

“Now, with this report complete, we intend to work with members of the Legislature to act on its recommendations. When it comes to public safety, inaction isn’t an option.”

The 52-page document says outgoing Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan told investigators on Aug. 8 that a new locking system and vendor had been selected.

It was the second time Ryan was formally interviewed as a part of the probe, and he announced his retirement the next day.

The report recommended that procedures be developed to assure the new locking system was effective.

Other recommendations concerned staffing, budget, training, security checks, the departmental reporting system, communications, leadership and funding.

“All of the mentioned ‘fixes’ require additional financial resources,” the report says. “So while funding itself was not often mentioned, it is an integral part of fixing locks, increasing staffing, boosting staff pay, providing additional staff training, and procuring, installing, and training on a new electronic communications system.”

Ducey’s press release notes that $17.7 million was approved for replacing locks and fire suppression systems at Lewis Prison, plus the budget he signed in May included $74.7 million for correctional officer salary increases in the 2020 fiscal year.

However, the release acknowledges that more investments are needed.

In addition to the recommendations, the report details the failure of the use of “pins” — 8-inch steel rods attached to chains – as a fix to the door issues, a plan approved by Ryan in late 2017.

The pins appear to have made things worse, the report says, increasing the number of “unauthorized access” incidents known as UAs.

“The decision to use pins did affect the frequency of UAs and staff and inmate assaults. The effect, unfortunately, was to increase those incidents,” the report says.

“Interviewees reported that adding the pins angered the inmates, who responded by having ‘pod porters’ remove the pins or by breaking their cell windows and removing the pins themselves. So a system intended to remedy UAs may have instead exacerbated the problem.”

The Department of Corrections issued a statement saying the report provides a fair assessment of the cell-door issues at Lewis.

The investigation by Berch and McGregor was ordered after ABC15 reported about multiple assaults by inmates able to leave their cells on correctional officers and other prisoners.

The station had surveillance video from six assaults inside Lewis Prison in Buckeye that occurred between June and December 2018.

Some of the incidents led to serious physical injuries on officers. One inmate was beaten to death.

In May, the department transferred 716 inmates out of Lewis Prison’s Morey Unit to other state facilities in order to to plan and implement a long-term solution for the lock issue.

In addition to the independent investigation, Ducey’s office launched a public safety task force with professionals from the Departments of Public Safety, Homeland Security and Administration and the State Fire Marshal to address issues that arose from the Lewis Prison situation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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