Indecent Exposure

Dave Knutson must have looked out of place at the Aspen Correctional Facility in Phoenix, compared to the inmates and corrections officers working on renovations at the facility. The inmates wore their dirty prison blues, covered with the dust and grime of the work they were doing. The officers wore their uniforms and badges. Knutson, however, was in a moon suit, the protective clothing and respirator required for dealing with hazardous materials.

But to one prisoner, 29-year-old Armando Gutierrez, Knutson looked like the answer man.

He showed Knutson, who was talking to one of the officers, a crumbling chunk of insulation.

"Can you tell me if this is asbestos?" he asked Knutson.
It was May 16, 1996. Gutierrez was at Aspen for a felony drunken-driving charge, working as part of an inmate-labor crew that was renovating parts of the facility. Knutson was there to do an asbestos abatement for the Arizona State Hospital, the campus where Aspen is located.

Knutson told Gutierrez he'd have to get the sample tested. After getting permission from a corrections officer, Gutierrez handed it over.

Gutierrez and other inmates had worked on renovations at Aspen for months. They'd been tearing down and rebuilding parts of the aged facility, even sleeping in one of the dorms they worked on. They'd spent hours in crawlspaces, tearing decrepit wrapping away from pipes and digging through crumbling insulation. All of the men had experience in the construction trades. And they suspected the insulation--which easily powdered into clouds of dust which surrounded them constantly--was not safe.

The corrections officers reassured the inmates, and said the prison facility had been checked out with no problems. But the officers were worried, too, the inmates could tell. Everyone kept working. There didn't seem to be any other options.

Until the technician called back with the test results, the same day that Gutierrez gave him the sample: The insulation--the same material the officers and inmates say they'd been around every day for months--was 22 percent asbestos, a potentially deadly carcinogen. Even a tiny shred of the once-common building material can cause a slow, painful death, either by tumors or by lung disease.

With that result, inmates, officers and employees at Aspen found confirmation of their worst fears; that asbestos-laden dust had been falling on them like snow at the ski hill which shares the same name.

Nearly 200 inmates and staff have since filed a potential multimillion-dollar liability lawsuit against the State of Arizona for exposing them to asbestos. The plaintiffs argue that the Arizona Department of Corrections knew about the hazards in the aged facility, but ignored proper safety procedures.

Some of the plaintiffs contend this has already led to health problems; others are merely waiting to see if the time bombs ticking in their chests will go off.

One plaintiff, a former ADOC employee who asked not to be named, says the incidents at Aspen have been on her mind constantly.

"I worry about it all the time," she says. "I worry about what was done to me, what I was exposed to, and what I might have brought home on my clothes, what I could have exposed my children to."

In March, asbestos levels in some places at the facility--which is still used by ADOC--were as much as 26 times the legal limit, according to an expert hired by the plaintiffs to conduct an inspection. A veteran ADOC captain says the department has broken the law in the past and will keep doing it.

The Aspen Correctional Facility, located at the intersection of 24th Street and Van Buren in Phoenix, is old. Built around 1920, the facility has been used by the Arizona State Hospital for much of its existence. In 1983, however, the Arizona Department of Corrections leased Aspen to house felony DUI offenders.

But by September 1995, the building presented problems--plumbing had to be fixed, wiring needed repair and offices had to be renovated. Fortunately, ADOC had a qualified labor pool on-site, able to work for pennies an hour: the inmates. A number of men at Aspen were tapped for a work crew assigned to do renovations at the prison.

Bill Marczak, a 56-year-old contractor, was one of them. Marczak was imprisoned for driving drunk while his license was suspended from an earlier DUI. He has since been released and is living in Tucson. At Aspen, he figured he'd rather work on the renovations than in the kitchen, his first assigned duty at the prison. He and a group of six other men started on the plumbing and wiring work.

"We had to replumb the whole place, rewire the whole place, because they were way under code," he recalls. "And that's basically where we were in the crawlspaces."

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Chris Farnsworth