Report: Prison riot began after encounter with drunk inmate

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FILE - In this March 1, 2018, file photo, a police vehicle and personnel gather outside the main entrance to the Arizona State Prison Complex-Yuma in San Luis, Ariz (Randy Hoeft/Yuma Sun /The Yuma Sun via AP, File) FILE - In this March 1, 2018, file photo, a police vehicle and personnel gather outside the main entrance to the Arizona State Prison Complex-Yuma in San Luis, Ariz (Randy Hoeft/Yuma Sun /The Yuma Sun via AP, File)

Authorities investigating a riot two months ago at a southern Arizona prison that left one inmate dead have concluded the violence was triggered by perceptions that corrections officers had used excessive force in dealing with another inmate who was intoxicated and combative.

[PREVIOUS STORY: 1 inmate killed in riot at prison near Yuma]

A contributing factor in the March 1 riot at the state prison in San Luis was frustration felt by inmates over frequent lockdowns in which officers searched housing areas for homemade alcohol. The searches often cut in half the time that inmates could spend on the prison yard, according to a report released last week by the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Inmate Adam J. Coppa, 32, was fatally shot as prisoners who were throwing objects and equipped with makeshift shields advanced toward officers during the riot. His death is being examined by the Department of Corrections’ criminal investigators. The investigation into Coppa’s death is still underway.

The report also revealed that six corrections officers were fired or quit after they were accused of intentionally damaging 145 televisions and other possessions for prisoners. An investigation into damaged inmate property was launched after bootprints were discovered on some of the TVs.

The report didn’t offer a possible motive for damaging the inmate property. Video footage shows several officers intentionally damaging inmate property, according to the report. It cost the Department of Corrections $28,000 to replace the TVs.

[RELATED: Authorities release more details on Arizona prison riot]

“The intolerable actions of these former officers violate every facet of what it means to be a correctional officer and dishonor the positive daily efforts of thousands of honest and dedicated corrections professionals in Arizona,” Corrections Director Charles Ryan said in a statement.

The agency said the investigative materials from the property investigation have been turned over to prosecutors. The Yuma County Attorney’s Office didn’t immediately return a call Thursday seeking an update on its review of the allegations.

Every inmate living in the prison unit where the riot occurred had to sleep outside on the recreation yard for five days while they were handcuffed, according to a court filing made last week by lawyers for inmates in a lawsuit over the quality of health care in Arizona’s prisons.

The lawyers say inmates had to go without their medications and that some experienced medical and mental health emergencies during that period.

The melee at the State Prison Complex-Yuma in San Luis, located about 200 miles (321 kilometers) southwest of Phoenix, began when an intoxicated inmate refused to follow corrections officers’ directions and began to assault an officer. That prompted officers to take him to the ground and place him into restraints, according to the Department of Corrections’ report on the riot.

[RELATED: State prison inmate in Yuma dies after apparent suicide try]

The report said a large group of inmates ran toward the officers and began to assault them as the combative inmate was being escorted of the yard. “It was a common, but incorrect, belief that this inmate had been beaten/assaulted by staff,” the report said.

Inmates hurled rocks at officers, got access to officer stations by breaking through a drywall ceiling and looted items stored in a medical cabinet. Officers fired pepper balls at inmates and, at various times, were forced to retreat, according to the report.

An officer, whose identity hasn’t been revealed, fired three buckshot blasts at the advancing inmates. A fourth buckshot round was fired but the report said it’s not yet known who fired the fourth shot.

Two hours after the riot started, the inmates started to comply with officers’ orders and were restrained with flex cuffs.

In all, 10 staff members and 25 inmates suffered injuries that required medical treatment.

The report said there was confusion among prison staff members over who was the incident commander once the riot began.

The agency said in a statement that it has taken disciplinary action against some members of the prison leadership team for their conduct during the riot. The agency also said it will undertake additional training to prevent similar disturbances in the future and more effectively manage such situations.

The riot caused $467,000 in damage at the prison.


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