Editor's note: This story was updated (below) on April 28, 2019.
After four Texas prison guards were fired for sharing inflammatory posts on social media joking about abusing inmates, Phoenix New Times has learned at least four law enforcement officers in Arizona have done the same thing.
"Felt cute ... might pepper spray your baby daddy later ... IDK," one apparent correctional officer with the Arizona Department of Corrections posted on Instagram several days ago, online records show.
The woman, who appears to be wearing an Arizona Department of Corrections uniform with the name Palacios, posted an Instagram photo under the handle "yessi5693" that was picked up by Instagram aggregating sites.
Her post was part of a recent trend of law enforcement officers across the country posting photos to social media along with a caption detailing what they might do later as part of the "Feeling Cute Challenge." In Texas, four prison guards were fired after controversial posts came to light.
In that case, a woman wearing a Texas Department of Criminal Justice uniform shared a selfie captioned: "Feeling cute, might just gas some inmates today, IDK." The Houston Chronicle reported that family members whose loved ones are incarcerated in Texas prisons were alarmed after seeing the posts on social media and contacted TDCJ, sparking an investigation.
"In the past week, the Arizona Department of Corrections became aware of two of its employees that had posted inappropriate remarks on social media involving the 'feeling cute' hashtag," said Andrew Wilder, a spokesperson for the department. "The Department quickly addressed the issue and administered corrective action in both cases. Additionally, the Department has communicated to all employees that engaging in this unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."
New Times emailed Wilder "yessi5693's" photo, but he did not clarify whether she was one of the two. Wilder also did not respond when asked what corrective action was taken, if any. If the woman was one of the two, that would mean at least four law enforcement officers in Arizona made flippant remarks, publicly, at the expense of those they are tasked with watching over. New Times found other questionable posts shared by a Yuma County Sheriff's deputy and an employee at a private prison facility in Pinal County.
David Helsdon, an Arizona man who claims to work as a correctional officer for CoreCivic, a private prison company, in Florence shared a post on Facebook that also appeared to joke about abusing inmates.
The Daily Mail published Helsdon's photo along with several others on April 17. Helsdon, whose Facebook account says he has worked for CoreCivic since May 23, 2011, and lives in Florence, Arizona, shared a photo of himself in a now-private Facebook group called "Correctional Officer Life" captioned: "feeling cute idk...might four point you later." Four-point refers to a method of restraining detainees by binding their wrists and ankles to a bed.
Helsdon did not respond to an email sent to his CoreCivic email address. CoreCivic also did not respond when asked via email about Helsdon and his remark. The CoreCivic facility in Florence where Helsdon appears to work houses people who have been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the United States Marshals Service, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and the U.S. Air Force.
JT Garcia, apparently a Yuma County Sheriff's deputy, shared a photo to Facebook of himself on April 17 captioned: "Felt cute, might flip a U-turn and ride your bumper for five miles just to freak you out later, IDK."
Neither Garcia nor Alfonso Zavala, a spokesperson for the Yuma County Sheriff's Office, responded to emails seeking comment. It appears Garcia deleted the post from his Facebook account after being contacted by New Times.
"It’s really disturbing to see correctional officers joke about intentionally harming people, especially while in uniform," said Analise Ortiz, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Arizona’s Campaign for Smart Justice. "This culture of dehumanization leads to real suffering inside our prisons daily. People in prison already fear inhumane treatment at the hands of guards and too often the system fails to hold law enforcement accountable for abuse of power. That’s why we can’t take these posts lightly."
Arizona prisons have a storied history when it comes to treating incarcerated people inhumanely. In 2009, 48-year-old Marcia Powell died after being locked in an outdoor cage in the blazing hot Arizona sun for four hours. A medical examiner determined that Powell died from complications from the heat exposure. A report from the ADC details how Powell pleaded to be released from the cage in the sweltering 107-degree heat, but was ignored.
"As someone who was incarcerated in Arizona prisons for more than 10 years, I'd say this is representative of more than just a couple guards. This is representative of an agency culture, of callous disregard of human rights," said Joe Watson, communications director for the American Friends Service Committee's Arizona office and former writer for New Times before his armed robbery conviction.
"All of this really lays at the feet of Chuck Ryan and Governor Ducey. It's the agency's responsibility to discipline these folks," Watson added. "We expect the DOC to do that, but if not, Ducey should get involved."
Clarification: This article initially defined "four-point" as hog-tying, which is how it is defined by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. But the Federal Bureau of Prisons defines "four-point" as "soft restraints with hard restraints used for securing the inmate to the bed." Four-point actually refers to a method of binding inmates to a bed by their wrists and ankles. One of the correctional officers mentioned in this story, David Helsdon, contacted New Times post-publication to express that he has never hog-tied anyone and that was not what he was referring to.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.