Overdose inside Arizona prison points to larger problem, concern for state leaders
Mar 28, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 7:59 am
PHOENIX — At 7:08 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, three inmates were found unconscious inside a maximum security unit at Lewis Prison in Buckeye.
Within two minutes, Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitations and Reentry staff administered Narcan, the drug used to combat narcotics overdoses, into the left nostril of a prisoner, according to documents obtained by KTAR News. The prisoner did not respond to the treatment.
Four minutes later, another dose goes into the left nostril with no response, according to documents.
By the top of the hour, the inmate was described as breathing but not coherent, documents said. A total of two prisoners were taken to a hospital in ambulances for treatment.
The incident illustrates an issue the state’s top corrections official admits is happening in what are supposed to be secure prisons in Arizona.
Narcotics are making their way into correctional facilities and in some cases, leading to emergency situations.
The scope of overdoses and how the drugs are making it into prisons are top concerns for Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, who took office in January.
“I think this is why transparency is so important, because it sounds like a lot of stuff has happened that maybe has been tried to be covered up,” Hobbs, when told of the Lewis overdoses, said in an exclusive interview.
“It wouldn’t surprise me”
The unconscious prisoners weren’t the only discovery made at Lewis Prison on that night in November.
About two hours after the prisoners were found, staff searched the inmates and dormitory and found two small strips of suboxone, according to documents.
Suboxone is one of the main treatments for opioid addiction. The strips belonged to another inmate, who was moved out of the unit, according to documents.
The presence of drugs and treatment for addiction in facilities became a startling reality for Hobbs in her first 100 days.
“It’s not necessarily something I campaigned on, but in terms of the priorities of state agencies and work that needs to be done, [corrections] is very high on the list,” Hobbs said.
The spotlight has already been shined at the county level.
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone announced in January that a detention officer was caught attempting to smuggle fentanyl and methamphetamine into the Lower Buckeye Jail.
The discovery worried Penzone enough that he’s installing machines to detect drugs and other contraband on employees at jails. Penzone called the policy a “legacy moment” for the agency.
Hobbs said she wouldn’t be shocked to hear the same type of employee misconduct happening at the state level.
“I think the idea of drugs being smuggled into correctional facilities is not new and I’m not aware of anything specific, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find something like that,” Hobbs said.
The roots of the problem
For Hobbs, there isn’t a singular problem.
She believes former Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration didn’t do enough to address prison issues through ADCRR, especially when it came to health care and overall culture within the walls of the facilities.
Arizona paid $1.1 million in contempt of court fines in February 2021 for failing to follow through on its promises to improve inmate care, marking the second time the state faced penalties for remaining noncompliant with many elements of a then-six-year-old deal.
In 2018, Arizona was hit with a $1.4 million contempt fine regarding the same problems.
The fines came under two corrections directors appointed by Ducey — Charles Ryan and David Shinn.
“This is an agency — that I think in all honestly — the previous administration just kind of did not want to deal with and was happy to let [former] director [Shinn] do whatever they wanted and not really address the root of these problems,” Hobbs said.
Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s former chief of staff, disagreed with Hobbs’ assessment.
Scarpinato said the administration “was focused on securing justice for victims and second chances for prisoners who had paid their debt to society and were reentering the general population.”
“Katie Hobbs’ priorities appear to be ending the death penalty for convicted murderers and taking better care of the prisoners while they’re in jail,” Scarpinato said in a statement to KTAR News.
“That’s her prerogative, but she’d be better served by laying out her own positive agenda than looking backwards and throwing rocks at the prior administration.”
One of Hobbs’ first executive orders established a 12-person commission to oversee the state’s prison system.
She ordered the commission to produce a preliminary report on the conditions and recommendations for improvements to Arizona prisons by Nov. 15.
The order was a result of a judge — the same judge who previously imposed the contempt of court fines against the state — mandating changes ADCRR needs to make in short order.
Some of those changes, such as ensuring there are enough qualified staff members, were included in Hobbs’ order.
“I think that when you have lower staffing levels than are maybe recommended or lack of oversight, that makes things ripe for that kind of misconduct and really exploiting a population that there’s not really a lot of sympathy for,” Hobbs said.
Regardless, it’s now on Hobbs and Ryan Thornell, Arizona’s new corrections director, to reverse prison drug problems.
“We also know there’s substance use within our facilities,” Thornell said. “That’s an issue in corrections that we’ve been battling for decades.”