Former Supreme Court Justices Find “Untenable Security Risks” At Lewis Prison

PHOENIX — For years, under the leadership of Governor Doug Ducey, security issues at Lewis Prison were ignored. On Thursday, at the request of Ducey, former Arizona Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Berch and Ruth McGregor looked into the effectiveness of locks and other security issues at the prison

The justices were asked by Governor Ducey to conduct an independent, third-party investigation into lock issues, including their causes and actions taken by the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to address them. The justices also were tasked with making recommendations including changes in policy, procedure or operation they deemed appropriate.

Report findings:

Having viewed videos of some of the assaults and fires at Lewis Prison on TV, we thought as we undertook this investigation that there was general agreement that the locks at Lewis Prison were broken. We soon learned that was not the case. There was, and still is to some extent, disagreement about whether the locks are broken such that the doors can’t be reliably secured or whether the doors are fine, but the inmates manipulate, tamper with, or “cap” them so that they fail to fully secure. This disagreement helps explain why certain steps were not timely undertaken to remedy the problem of inmates leaving their cells without authorization.

The first school of thought, held by much of senior management, from the warden level and perhaps deputy warden level through the Director, is that the doors are not broken. They are, however, subject to inmate tampering. Inmates tamper by placing something – magnets, bottle caps, plastic, or whatever small object they can find – in the door track to prevent the locks on the slide doors from fully engaging, a process called “capping.” The doors appear to be closed and may even “click” so they register as “secure” on the control console, but the locking mechanism has not fully engaged and the inmates can later shake or manipulate the doors open. Inmates can accomplish the same end by kicking at, hitting with objects, or otherwise denting the doorframe so that the door won’t secure.


If it were the case that the doors are secure unless inmates cap them, then, of course, the doors do not need “fixing,” and they certainly don’t need to be replaced. Instead, the burden falls to the COs to inspect the door frames more carefully to ensure that inmates have not obstructed them, and then recheck by shaking each door each time they close a cell door to make sure it is fully secured. This view is supported by statements from the lock maintenance personnel who reported to senior management that 70-80 percent of the locks they were called out to repair weren’t broken; the inmates had simply capped the doors. Once the obstructions were removed, the doors worked properly.

The second school of thought, held mostly by those who work in the trenches and open and close the doors several times daily, is that many of the doors are actually broken and will not secure. Although the members of this group recognize that inmates do place objects in the frame to prevent securing, this group believes that some of the reason placing the objects can be easily done and affects the doors’ functioning is that the doors are getting old and have sufficient “give” in them that they can be manipulated. They respond to the charge that COs are simply failing to adequately check the doors in two ways: First, they acknowledge that sometimes this may be so, but assert that lack of time caused by understaffing leaves them unable to give the extra time that would be required to inspect the frame of each door each time an inmate is returned to a cell and then to shake the door for a few seconds after it has been closed. Estimates of the time this would take ranged from 20 seconds to one minute per door. As a regular part of their work, COs often return 50 inmates at a time to their cells (two to a cell). If they must spend an extra 20 seconds at each door of 25 cells, they have just built in an extra eight minutes into that task of returning inmates– which must then be repeated to let the next pod of inmates out for or return from meals or recreation or programming.

Delays of 16 minutes here and there add up to delays of an hour or more, and delaying taking inmates for their necessary meals, showers, phone calls, recreation, visitation, classes and other activities makes the inmates dissatisfied. One Lieutenant estimated the time necessary to do a careful lockdown and inspection at one minute per door. Adding one minute per door increases inmate movement time by 25 minutes per pod for each inmate-pod movement, a number that would add delays of a couple of hours in a CO’s day.

If a CO finds a problem with a door, additional time is spent writing the required report and work order. Second, diverting attention away from the inmates being locked down poses a security risk.

After much discussion and consideration of the positions advocated by the interviewees and after viewing several videos of the doors in action, we concluded that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the opposing views. It is clear that the inmates do cap and manipulate the doors. Evidence of this has been presented time and again. Indeed, even ADC’s own website contains a video made at Lewis Prison in 2006 demonstrating how the doors can be obstructed, register as “secure” on the control panel, yet be able to be opened. But it also is clear that some of the locks are just broken, as evidenced by the many work orders requesting lock repairs that must be serviced or fulfilled by lock maintenance staff. They simply will not close, lock, and stay locked. Finally, several COs spoke of the sound and feel of the doors. As doors get older and start to deteriorate, they become more difficult to close, may stick, and fully secure less and less often. Lewis Prison was built in the late 1990s. The doors are now 20 years old. While that is relatively new in the context of Arizona prisons, the doors get much use, and their proper functioning is essential to safe, secure prisons.

So despite initial disagreement about whether the doors are broken, consensus has now been reached that not all doors effectively and reliably close, lock, and secure the inmates. The inmates’ ability to UA their doors presents an untenable security risk that must be remedied.

The report includes 9 recommendations, including:

Recommendation 1: ADC should continue progress on identifying and installing an alternative locking system at Lewis prison.

  • The report identified long-standing issues with inmates at Lewis Prison gaining unauthorized access to their cell doors.
  • In May 2019, members of the Public Safety Task Force initiated a review of state correctional systems to find best practices and solutions used by others that have experienced similar lock issues. This research helped identify potential options for replacement or alternative lock mechanisms to be procured.
  • In June 2019, the Joint Committee on Capital Review approved a $17.7 million request from ADC to replace locks, fire alarm and suppression systems, and HVAC systems. Phase I of this project involves replacing locks and fire suppression systems at the Lewis Prison complex.
  • ADC will develop a plan to ensure continued progress to address this critical issue.

Recommendation 2: ADC should take action to address staff shortages, including increasing compensation for correctional officers.

  • Reversing the trend of correctional officer shortages remains a top priority.
  • In January 2019, the governor proposed a public safety personnel pay package to provide raises to public safety personnel including Correctional Officer pay increases.
  • In May 2019, the governor signed the Fiscal Year 2020 budget including $74.7 million to fund the salary increases.
  • Still, there is much more work to do. We remain focused on ensuring the Department of Corrections is implementing effective recruitment and retention strategies, including developing a staff retention action plan.

Recommendation 3: ADC should continue to refine its process for developing a budget with clearly defined priorities. 

  • The report identifies clear deficiencies within the budget development process.
  • The governor’s office has directed ADC to convene subject matter experts within their agency, the Department of Administration, and the Strategic Office of Planning and Budgeting to develop solutions to these findings.

Recommendation 4: ADC should continue revamping training for correctional officers and all levels of personnel.

  • In May 2019, the Public Safety Task Force in conjunction with the State Fire Marshal began work with ADC to implement new security and life-safety training and security check training for officers as part of an ongoing focus on ensuring a safe environment for all individuals.
  • New measures require that all officers receive both pre-service and annual in-service fire-safety training, meaning they receive fire-safety training prior to becoming officers and annually thereafter.
  • The ability for correction officers to perform their jobs with the necessary tools, training, and expertise is vital. ADC has been instructed to continue their work to improve and enhance their training protocols.

Recommendation 5: Supervisory personnel must ensure that required door checks are timely and properly completed. 

  • ADC has engaged staff regarding the need to conduct quality checks of the cell doors and locks to identify and rectify inmate tampering with the locking mechanisms before the inmates are secured in their cells. This includes continued discussions with staff as well as active observation of door inspections and securing procedures, with feedback and redirection given to improve these practices as needed.
  • ADC will define clear goals for ensuring these important and necessary security checks are completed as standard procedure.

Recommendation 6: ADC should revamp and modernize the ADC reporting system in a way that eliminates redundancy and improves access to important documents.

  • ADC will engage in a comprehensive review of their reporting system, operations for improvement and/or development of a modern reporting system to improve efficiency, eliminate waste, and allow correction officers more time to focus on administering the critical elements of their job responsibilities.

Recommendation 7: ADC should continue to take steps to emphasize the importance of communicating accurate information and develop an electronic system that facilitates more immediate contact when necessary. 

  • The report identifies the need for improvement in the communication of accurate information related to security incidents to ensure accountability and resolution.
  • The Public Safety Task Force will work with ADC to develop communication protocols that prioritize and ensure the communication of accurate and complete security incident reporting.

Recommendation 8: ADC leadership should adopt modern prison administration techniques and make more frequent, unannounced visits to prisons. 

  • Strong leadership, oversight and accountability are necessary to any organization and ADC must continue to adopt practices that reflect this priority.
  • The state is engaged in identifying a new leader for the department with a commitment to public safety, recidivism, and strong staff engagement and morale.

Recommendation 9: Additional funding to implement discussed “fixes” should be addressed. 

  • This is about public safety, and investments must continue to be a priority.
  • ADC has engaged in the development of a multi-phase plan to address lock and life-safety issues in prisons.
  • Recent investments illustrate the commitment to addressing these important issues, including:
    • $17.7 million invested to replace locks and fire suppression systems at Lewis Prison complex.
    • $74.7 million to fund critical correctional officer salary increases.
  • There is more work to do, and investments to address these issues are an ongoing and urgent priority.
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