New Report Finds Ex-Prison Chief Chuck Ryan Culpable in Prison Lock Scandal

Chuck Ryan.
Chuck Ryan. Arizona Department of Corrections
Former Arizona Department of Corrections Director Chuck Ryan was woefully uninformed about the ineffective locks at a state correctional facility that contributed to injuries and at least one death, according to a scathing report released Thursday.

Ryan's failure to understand the problem under his watch contributed to his failure to take action to repair the prison locks, the governor-appointed investigators also found.

Governor Doug Ducey ordered the report in April, shortly after ABC 15 published shocking surveillance footage of several inmates at Lewis Prison opening their cell doors and attacking correctional officers. The report by ABC 15 (KNXV-TV) also found that the prison locks had been faulty for at least five years and that top prison officials had failed to address the problem.

Ducey tapped two former Arizona Supreme Court justices, Ruth McGregor and Rebecca Berch, to conduct the probe into the Lewis prison-lock problem.

Ryan resigned as head of state prisons on August 9, a day after McGregor and Berch interviewed him a second time. In addition to the Lewis prison-locks scandal, Ryan faced criticism for overseeing prisons marred by reports of water shortages, inadequate health-care services, and civil-rights abuses.

The report found Ryan responsible for not requesting funds to fix the prison locks. Ryan was aware that inmates were escaping from their cells as early as 2017, McGregor and Berch wrote, but senior managers did not adequately describe how faulty prison locks contributed to the problem. Ryan's ignorance could have stemmed from a tendency to surround himself with "yes men," some interviewees told investigators.

"But regardless how it happened or whose fault it was, we conclude that the Director, for too long, remained surprisingly uninformed about the poor functioning of the locks and scope and seriousness of the danger the inmate [unauthorized access] issue that resulted at Lewis posed to inmates and officers," McGregor and Berch wrote. "That is not acceptable."

According to the report, Ryan "expressed surprised" after watching footage of the inmate attack published by ABC 15. Ryan said that he had received a report on the incident, but it did not state that it involved attacks on officers.

"He therefore did not know, or if he knew intellectually he did not fully appreciate, the scope of inmates’ ability to [leave their] cells until he saw the video in April 2019," the report states.

Ryan's inaction on the faulty prison locks appears to have stemmed from his belief that the locks weren't broken at all. He believed the problem of inmates leaving their cells sprang from their ability to place objects in their door track to prevent it from locking.

The report found that Lewis inmates do manipulate prison doors, but that fact did not describe the whole problem. After a review of work orders, the investigators concluded that some of the locks were broken.

"They simply will not close, lock, and stay locked," McGregor and Berch wrote.

Perhaps because of his failure to understand the problem, Ryan did not secure funding to fix the locks at Lewis prison. From 2014 to 2020, the Department of Corrections did not make any requests to the Legislature for funds for locks at Lewis. It wasn't just Lewis. The prison system as a whole received no funding for locks in 13 of 16 years reviewed by McGregor and Berch.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh