Activists Question Quality of Arizona Prison Riot Investigation

Prisoner rights advocates are calling on Governor Doug Ducey to order an independent investigation of security practices at a privately run prison in Golden Valley after a three day riot sent 13 people to the hospital.

Ducey ordered Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan to look into the incident at Arizona State Prison-Kingman on Monday, but critics say Ryan can’t be trusted to be impartial.

Although Kingman is operated by Utah-based Management & Training Corp., the DOC employs auditors at the prison to make sure the company is in compliance with its’ state contract. Donna Leon Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, argues that there is a “very high likelihood” that such monitors “missed opportunities to resolve the conflicts weeks before a riot erupted.”

“It is completely inappropriate for the DOC to be investigating their own riot,” she told New Times. “If they investigate this incident themselves, it will be a whitewash.”

Jim Kalin, a retired DOC deputy warden, echoed her concern.

“If the DOC is going to do the investigation, it’s a waste of time and money,” he said. “The investigators will have instructions on what to find, and then they’ll find it.”

Kalin and other DOC employees also raised questions about whether the state agency may have inappropriately assigned dangerous inmates to the minimum custody prison, contributing to the riot.

The state is required to pay private prisons, which do not take close- or maximum-custody inmates, for a certain number of beds regardless of whether those beds are filled. So, Kalin said, when beds open up, the DOC starts downgrading inmates from higher custody levels.

“You do the override or you don’t have a job,” he said — regardless of personal concerns about whether someone would do well in a less restrictive environment. 

No statistics have been released to indicate inmates at Kingman were downgraded from higher custody levels.

However, Arizona Republic reporter Craig Harris obtained records in February that suggested something similar may have happened at DOC-run Eyman prison. After inmate Jacob Harvey raped a DOC teacher, Harris discovered that his custody level was downgraded from close- to medium-custody at the same time the agency was making plans to move medium-custody inmates to a private prison in Eloy, citing overcrowding. On the day Harvey was moved, there were 25 empty beds in the close-custody unit. He took the last empty bed in Eyman’s medium-custody unit.

In a $4 million lawsuit, detailed in a New Times cover story, the teacher who was raped argues that Harvey was moved to medium-custody against the recommendation of the DOC employees who worked most closely with him.

“The DOC had every reason to pump people into medium,” said the woman’s lawyer, Scott Zwillinger. “It’s about money.”

Issa Arnita, director of corporate communications for Management & Training Corp., said Kingman’s offenders “are classified according to DOC requirements.”

He said the company is cooperating with the DOC to “look at lessons learned and to implement any necessary changes.”

The trouble started July 1, when a small group of inmates assaulted another inmate in Cerbat, the prisons’ minimum-custody unit, Arnita said.

On July 2, a riot erupted in the medium-security Hualapai unit after one of MTC’s corrections officers allegedly insulted an inmate’s religion.

Inmates tore through the facilities until July 4, breaking mirrors and windows, shattering toilets and ripping sinks off the wall, and trashing housing units. Nine officers and four inmates were injured, Arnita said.

The DOC sent 96 tactical officers into the prison to quell the violence. More than one thousands inmates were relocated so MTC could begin repairs.

Ducey wrote a letter to Ryan requesting the review Monday after touring the facility.

“I believe it is critical that we understand how these incidents occurred and how we prevent them in the future,” he wrote. “The public also needs to know the facts and have assurance that prison in our state — both state-run and privately run — are under control.”

His spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, told New Times the governor is “confident Director Ryan will provide a thorough and impartial review.”

The riots are the latest in a string of high-profile incidents at Arizona State-Kingman. 

In January, an inmate was murdered. Another inmate died after he was beaten and sexually assaulted last year.

In 2010, the warden was forced to resign after a DOC investigation faulted MTC for poor security practices following the 2010 escape of three inmates. The inmates made their break after a woman threw a pair of wire cutters over the fence, then went on a violent crime spree, killing an Oklahoma couple who was camping in New Mexico. 

Got a tip? Email Elizabeth Stuart

Follow Elizabeth Stuart on Twitter: @elizMstuart

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