PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - An independent investigation released its report on Thursday into the effectiveness of the cell door locks and other security issues at Lewis prison.
The report, conducted by two former Arizona Supreme Court justices at the request of Gov. Doug Ducey, outlined the failed actions to fix the problems at the prison, and offered recommendations to improve the conditions at the prison in Buckeye.
The investigation revealed that since at least 2010, inmates were able to open their locked cell doors by "capping" them, so it looked like they were secure on the correction officers' control console but they were not.
However, leadership at the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) disagreed over whether the locks were really broken or if inmates needed to be supervised more closely so they couldn't "cap" them. The justices concluded that is why, in part, their "solutions" didn't work out.
The report found the inmates jamming cell door lock "contributed to assaults on both staff and inmates."
Timeline of cell door lock problems & fixes
By fall 2017, the opening of cell door locks had become a major problem and by June of 2018, the ADC authorized and installed a pin system to help keep the cell doors locked. However, that move didn't work as inmates were able to pull the pins out and still "cap" the doors, plus they could make weapons out of the pins, the report said.
By the middle of 2018, leadership found the pins were not solving the cell door problem, and in December, ADC director Charles Ryan brought in a whole new leadership team for Lewis Prison.
In early 2019, padlocks were installed to prevent the cell doors from being opened. But that solution became time consuming for the corrections officers since they had to carry the padlocks with them every time they opened the cell door, the report said. Inmates also were able to remove the padlocks and used them as weapons.
The new leadership also tried a "step down program" in early 2019, where inmate "leaders" helped control the inmates and keep the peace, the report said. That didn't work either, as it caused inmates to be unhappy and the discipline carried out by the inmate "leaders" was often severe.
In late April of 2019, videos, which were recorded in the fall of 2018, were leaked to the media. They showed inmates at Lewis Prison going in and out of their cells.
The video prompted Arizona lawmakers to approve nearly $46 million to replace cell door locks, plus fire alarms and air conditioning at Lewis Prison and the Yuma prison, which had similar lock issues but not as severe.
Accountability of Director Ryan
The video also sparked calls for Ryan to be fired. He announced his retirement earlier this month, but his last day isn't until Sept. 13.
The report outlined how Ryan and other leadership failed to effectively react to the cell door lock problem. The ADC initially said Ryan at first said he didn't know about the problem until May 2018, but then the department changed its statement, and said he knew of the lock malfunctions in November 2017.
The investigation raises the question why Ryan didn't know earlier, and why he couldn't come up with a definitive answer. Some people the justices interviewed said Ryan surrounded himself with "yes men" and didn't want to hear negative reports. Other said Ryan welcomed "honesty" and wanted to be informed. But either way, the investigation said Ryan should have known sooner and acted faster.
"We conclude that the Director, for too long, remained surprisingly uninformed about the poor functioning of the locks and scope and seriousness of the danger the inmate (cell door lock) issue that resulted at Lewis posed to inmates and officers," the report said.
The report applauded the additional money for the locks and said staffing needs to be increased at the prison as well. Right now, there is a vacancy rate of 19% for correctional officers and a projected 25.7% rate for 2021. The report also recommended revamped training, revised reporting system and better communication.