Deaths, Riots, Manhunts: Scandals Predate Calls for Arizona Prison Boss Firing

Steven Hsieh
Protesters gathered at the Capitol on Friday, May 3, 2019, to demand the ouster of ADOC director Chuck Ryan.
Something needs to be done about Arizona's prisons.

Democrats in the Arizona Legislature said as much last week when they called for the firing of state Department of Corrections Director Chuck Ryan. The demand followed an investigation by ABC15 News revealing how faulty doors at a Buckeye prison endangered guards and led to the death of at least one inmate.

Republicans in the State House agreed action needs to be taken, but didn't go so far as calling for anyone's head. They praised a decision by Governor Doug Ducey to investigate dangerous conditions at Lewis Prison. Ducey on Friday said that his expectations for Ryan are "not being met."

Ryan, an appointee of former Governor Jan Brewer, has been at the helm of the corrections department since 2009. His annual salary was $185,000 as of 2017.

The prevailing question among Arizona officials over the ABC15 revelations is: How could something so rudimentary — making sure the prison doors lock —  go overlooked?

For inmate and civil rights activists who have long protested Ryan's management of the prisons system, another question comes up: What took everyone so long to pay attention?

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona — along with families of inmates who died in prison — gathered Friday afternoon at the Arizona Capitol for a demonstration over the issues. The group brought a letter to the reception area of Ducey's office demanding Ryan's ouster. (The governor was not in the building.)

Chuck Ryan
Arizona Department of Corrections
Among those who spoke with Ducey staffers was Patti Jones, whose nephew Tony Lester killed himself in an Arizona prison nearly a decade ago. Lester, who was schizophrenic, cut himself to death with razors provided to him; corrections officers who witnessed his action did not render aid, she said.

"We've been fighting since 2010 for change," Jones said. "And I've received letters daily from inmates' families and nothing has changed."

Ryan's tenure at the Department of Corrections has been marred by a steady stream of scandals. Preventable deaths. Riots and prison breaks. Millions of dollars worth of court fines. Whistleblower complaints. Shortages of essentials, like tampons and toilet paper.

Critics recently have focused on inadequate health care at state prisons. Last year, a federal judge fined the Department of Corrections $1.4 million after the agency failed to meet the terms of a settlement agreement resulting from the 2012 prison health care lawsuit Parsons v. Ryan. And on Friday, the judge awarded the attorneys in the case $1.3 million for attorneys' fees to the plaintiffs, reported Jimmy Jenkins of local NPR affiliate KJZZ (92.3 FM).

The original lawsuit that sparked the millions of dollars in taxpayer fines outlined dozens of examples of medical neglect, including claims that critically ill prisoners were told to "pray" away their sickness.

"The price tag attached to the Parsons v. Ryan lawsuit should be enough to say 'we should get rid of this guy,'" said Caroline Isaacs, Arizona program director for the American Friends Services Committee.

Earlier this year, the Arizona corrections agency cut ties with Corizon, its private contractor for prison health care, after KJZZ published whistleblower complaints that the company instructed its employees to deliberately mislead government auditors.

Another company, Management & Training Corp (MTC), lost a contract with Arizona after a state audit found that it failed to control a 2015 riot in a Kingman prison under its watch.

But like Corizon, the company already had lapses years before the state took any action. In 2010, inmates at the company's Kingman facility escaped. One of them was convicted of committing two murders while on the lam.

Most of the activists who protested Ryan at the Capitol on Friday have been critiquing the state prison system for years. Erika Mollett only recently got involved after getting connected with the ACLU through a pastor at her church. Mollett's father, Richard Washington, died in late January, six weeks after he wrote in a court document that he "was being killed" due to inadequate medical care.

"The prisons have to do a lot better," Mollett said. "I understand that people committed crimes, but they have to stop treating them like they're animals. Because they have people out here who love them."