Lefties Love to Hate Private Prisons, but ADC Director Charles Ryan Shows That "Public" Isn't Necessarily Better

Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan could give Rob Zombie and M. Night Shyamalan a run for their money when it comes to the production of sheer horror.

Save for the fact that what Zombie and Shyamalan create is mere fiction that's finished after a couple of hours in a movie theater.

What Ryan oversees is a gruesome reality that never seems to end, and for which no one holds him accountable.

For more than six years, he's been the top prison honcho at the ADC, despite the sort of fiascoes and scandals that would have felled most public officials.

A full accounting of these would tax this column's space, but a brief review of some of Ryan's "greatest hits" from his time as AZ's prison jefe are enough to make your blood run cold in the desert sun.

Take the cruel 2009 death of Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old mentally challenged woman doing time at Goodyear's Perryville Prison for repetitive prostitution.

Guards left her in a human cage for four hours in the blazing sun without shade or access to water.

She collapsed in 107-degree heat and was transported to a medical facility where Ryan gave the order to pull the plug on her brain-dead body. Upon examination, her core body temperature was 108 degrees.

Then, there's the 2010 suicide of inmate Tony Lester, a 26-year-old Native American and diagnosed schizophrenic.

He was doing time at a state prison in Tucson for aggravated assault.

Corrections officers mistakenly gave Lester shaving razors, with which he promptly cut his throat and arms.

The guards rendered no aid and videotaped Lester as he bled to death in his cell.

The video footage went viral after it was aired by Channel 12.

Also in 2010, three prisoners escaped from a private prison in Kingman run by the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation.

Before they were caught, two of the prisoners, with the help of an accomplice, carjacked and murdered a middle-aged couple vacationing in New Mexico.

In a press release accompanying an ADC report on the incident, Ryan stated that MTC employees "failed to follow sound correctional practices," but he did admit some fault of his own.

"ADC failed to properly monitor the activities at the Kingman private prison and did not hold the company's feet to the fire," he said. "The escape demonstrated the department's old monitoring program did not raise critical issues."

Remember that statement when we return to the Kingman facility and its recent riots.

In 2013, Ryan amazingly reported on his blog that "in the past four and a half years, there have been 640 staff arrests," of which 433 "were for behaviors like domestic violence, fighting, assaults, harassment, drug use and possession, and drinking-related offenses."

He also stated that ADC staff arrests were on the rise, "averaging almost 11 . . . per month."

What did Ryan do about this? He politely asked ADC staff to knock it off.

In 2013, a female ADC corrections officer at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Winslow was the subject of a brutal beatdown that required facial reconstruction surgery.

She had been escorting 50 unrestrained male prisoners by herself.

Civilian female staffers sometimes fare worse.

My colleague Elizabeth Stuart reported in July on a lawsuit by a former ADC employee, a teacher, who was brutally beaten and raped by one of her students.

The woman was unprotected, her class unmonitored by prison guards. And it was not a singular occurrence.

Stuart writes that the rape "was one of 412 assaults on DOC staff in fiscal year 2014 — an increase of 36 percent since 2005, when the agency reported 149 attacks."

Also in 2013, then-state House Minority Leader Chad Campbell called for Ryan's resignation, citing Lester's death and "reports that Arizona's prison suicide rate was 60 percent higher than the national average."

Campbell noted numerous other examples of dangerous mismanagement on Ryan's part, like contracting with a private provider of healthcare to inmates, which ended up exposing more than 100 inmates to hepatitis C by not properly disposing of a dirty needle.

Did Ryan resign? Did then-Governor Jan Brewer take action? Was there an outcry for Ryan's head on a platter?

Of course not. Campbell was a Democrat. What did he know?

Ryan's pièce de résistance came in 2014, when his ADC did the near-impossible, botching an execution by lethal injection of Arizona murderer Joseph Randolph Wood.

Wood took two hours to die and was observed gasping more than 600 times for air before he was pronounced dead.

I know the general public could give a flip about what happens to condemned murderers.

Still, if you're in the execution biz, that's incompetence on a gargantuan scale.

And yet, after Governor Doug Ducey was sworn in at the beginning of this year, did he move to replace Ryan with a more competent individual?

Hell no. For reasons that remain clear only to Ducey, Ryan retains his post.

Which brings us full circle to the recent riots at the facility run by MTC in Kingman.

The riots spanned three days of unrest that resulted in at least nine guards and an untold number of inmates injured, as well as $1.9 million in damage.

About 1,200 prisoners had to be moved to other facilities. One of the guards involved in an altercation that set off a riot in one area of the prison later committed suicide.

Ducey ordered an immediate investigation by, um, Ryan.

Not surprisingly, Ryan subsequently produced a voluminous report, which said MTC was to blame for lax training, disorganization, failure to follow ADC guidelines, and an inability to act quickly to quash the riots.

Calling what happened at Kingman "frightening, disturbing, and completely unacceptable," Ducey ordered Ryan to sever the state's contract with MTC.

This, while Ryan's fanny remains super-glued to his director's chair.

Thing is, just as Ryan admitted that the ADC failed to properly oversee the Kingman facility after the 2010 escape and the killings of two innocents, the ADC fumbled in Kingman in July as well.

It had several monitors assigned to Kingman to make sure it was in compliance. So, why didn't they catch MTC's systemic problems?

Ryan told journalists that his monitors weren't to blame if MTC wasn't coming clean with them.

"I don't know how you can expect the monitors to read the crystal ball," he stated, according to the Associated Press.

Ryan didn't need a crystal ball, according to Caroline Isaacs of the reform-minded American Friends Service Committee.

"ADC should have kicked [MTC] to the curb five years ago after the first incident," she told me, referencing the 2010 prison break. "It's clear ADC is negligent in running their entire system, and they were certainly negligent in terms of monitoring MTC's contract."

Isaacs' group is opposed to private prisons, in general, and she is aghast that Arizona now is considering turning over the Kingman facility to another private prison company, all of which have checkered histories in her eyes.

But she concedes that the ADC is bad, too. And, yes, Ryan needs to go.

"His correctional style and model is outdated, is the nicest way I can say it," she said.

True, sometimes it seems that Ryan's borrowed his views on crime and punishment (and his haircut) from the warden in The Shawshank Redemption.

Which begs the question: What does Ryan have to do to get fired in this state?

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons