PHOENIX — The union representing Arizona prison guards joined an inmate rights group Tuesday to demand that the state immediately fix security problems that they say led to an inmate's death and the severe beating of two guards.
Carlos Garcia of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association said at a state Capitol news conference they immediately want Gov. Doug Ducey and Corrections Department Director Charles Ryan to fix the problem.
He said the department is negligent in not addressing problems with door locks at the Lewis prison in Buckeye that were revealed in a report by Phoenix television station ABC15.
"We've had one inmate killed because of doors not being fixed by this administration, two staff severely beaten with countless more that went under the table simply because they were deemed a low-level thing," said Garcia, a retired correctional officer. "It's inappropriate, completely inappropriate."
Corrections officials said they've placed padlocks on 1,000 high-security cells at the prison, which houses more than 5,000 inmates. The department said inmates have been tampering with cell door locks for about two years, and various other fixes were ineffective.
Ducey's office said in a statement late Monday the problem was "unacceptable" and promised quick action.
"There is zero excuse for anything that compromises public safety," he said. "The issues at Lewis Prison are deeply concerning — and we take them very seriously. An environment that poses a threat to the safety of either correctional officers or inmates is unacceptable and must be addressed immediately."
Ducey's office said it is deploying a special team from various state agencies to ensure the Department of Corrections is taking the needed action.
The governor announced late Tuesday that he has hired two retired state Supreme Court justices to investigate the problem at the Lewis prison and to determine if there are similar problems at the state's nine other prisons.
Ducey said former justices Rebecca White Berch and Ruth McGregor will conduct the review.
"We need the facts and we need to make sure a situation like this never happens again," he said in a statement.
Corrections Department spokesman Andrew Wilder said Ryan spent the weekend at the prison observing padlock installations and talking with staff. Wilder said the department is treating this situation with the "highest urgency."
At the news conference, Donna Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform said the department has documented problems with cell door locks for more than 20 years, noting a prison guard at another prison died in a 1997 attack blamed on bad locks.
"The department has a long and sordid history, really, with respect to staff and inmate safety," Hamm said. "We stand in support of their right to be safe in their jobs, as well as the inmates to be safe in their cells."
Hamm said they've had reports about defective door locks from families of inmates at two other state prisons since the ABC15 report aired.
The padlocks on cell doors were approved by the state fire marshal, even though they do not meet state fire code requirements and would normally be banned.
"Although, the implemented solution is not ideal; based on my observations and information provided today, OSFM is willing to accept the procedures that are being put into place," acting assistant fire marshal Josiah Brant said in a letter released by the Corrections Department.
The padlocks are a clear hazard, said Garcia, contending inmates and guards will be in mortal danger if a fire erupts. Guards would have to go through smoke-filled cellblocks unlocking padlocks one at a time to evacuate inmates.
"Inmates are absolutely going to die if they have a fire," Garcia said. "And on top of that staff will die."