Corrections Dept. spent no money to repair broken cell door locks

By: - May 13, 2019 2:07 pm

Photo by Matthew Hendley | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Seven months after Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan learned of a problem with broken cell door locks at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, he sought approval for a building renewal plan that included funding for walk-in freezers, backup generators and new door locks for a different facility.

The building renewal plan made no mention of the problems at the Lewis prison, and didn’t seek approval to spend any money resolving the issue.

And in its budget request for the 2020 fiscal year, which it submitted to Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget office in September, the department made no mention of any funding needed to replace cell door locks at the Lewis prison, though it did seek additional funding for undescribed capital improvement needs.  

Agency spokesman Andrew Wilder said the Department of Corrections viewed the problem as one of inmates tampering with the cell door locks. It didn’t prioritize funding to deal with the problem because it was not apparent at the time that the department’s solution – inserting metal pins to keep the cell doors locked – wasn’t effective, he said.

The Department of Corrections’ building renewal budget for the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, is nearly $5.5 million.

According to the legislature’s Joint Committee on Capital Review, which approved the Department of Corrections’ building renewal budget in July 2018, the agency earmarked $1.4 million for a multi-year project to fix locking systems at a different prison. The department’s report to the committee stated the expenditure for the 2019 fiscal year brings total expenditures for the locking systems at Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman’s SMU I to $6.8 million.

In December, the department reported to JCCR that it was reallocating $1.5 million to replace a leaking natural gas pipe at its Winslow facility. To cover the costs, the department shifted nearly $500,000 that had been intended for an air conditioning upgrade at Eyman and $760,000 budgeted to replace walk-in freezers at the Florence prison. And the department used $250,000 intended for disability access upgrades at Florence, which it recouped using other funds.

Other major projects the department budgeted for the current fiscal year include $1.5 million to replace fencing and underground cables that allow staff to monitor the perimeter at the Lewis prison; $400,000 to refurbish a water tank in Yuma; about $300,000 to upgrade electrical wiring in Florence; and $155,000 to replace emergency generators in Perryville.

In fiscal year 2017, the department reallocated $350,000 to repair door lock systems at the Lewis prison, including in the Buckley unit, which is one of the units where ABC15 recently reported widespread problems with cell door locks. That project, which cost a total of $1 million, according to the department’s report to JCCR, upgraded control room locking panels at Lewis. The locking and control systems can operate all doors within a pod, which is a subdivision of a building or housing unit at a prison.

lewis padlock door
Photo of a cell door in the Lewis prison secured with both a padlock and an eight-inch steel pin. Photo courtesy Dave Biscobing | Twitter

ABC15 revealed in April that cell door locks in several units at the Lewis prison don’t actually lock, which has resulted in several assaults against guards and inmates, including a fatal attack on an inmate. The station reported that the department has instead used padlocks and eight-inch steel pins, some of which have gone missing, to keep the doors closed.

The department attributed the problem to inmates tampering with door locks.

Ryan told ABC15 that it takes time and money to replace locks, and “there are other projects that also had to be evaluated” for the current fiscal year. The department did not tell the station which other projects had taken precedence, and said it didn’t learn about the problem until May 2018.

According to Arizona Openbooks, the government’s website that tracks spending by state agencies, the Department of Corrections has spent nearly $5.4 million on building renewal projects this fiscal year, which ends in two months. It’s unclear if all of that money was from the department’s FY19 budget or if some was from previous years.

Wilder clarified for the Mirror that the department actually first learned of the tampering problem in November 2017, six months earlier than DOC initially told ABC15 it learned of the problem. The department began “immediate inspections and repairs,” and assigned two corrections officers to inspect cell doors for evidence of tampering or other malfunctions. Two more officers were assigned to inspect the locks as incidents increased, Wilder said.

As incidents continued to increase, DOC began pinning the doors in January 2018, and that process was completed in June of that year, Wilder said. In January of this year, DOC began padlocking doors, which was completed at the end of April, just days after ABC15 first publicized the problem.

Wilder told the Mirror that funding for the broken locks at the Lewis prison wasn’t part of DOC’s capital improvement plan in 2018 because it didn’t learn in time that the pinning wasn’t effective. At the time, the department viewed the problem as one of inmate tampering and preventative maintenance.

“Over time, it became apparent that the pinning countermeasure was vulnerable to pervasive tampering by inmates. That led to the temporary fix in January 2019 of using padlocks in some pods as a deterrent for those who would continue to tamper with pinned cells,” Wilder said.

In the department’s fiscal year 2020 budget request, Ryan did ask for DOC’s building renewal budget to increased by $1.4 million, which would bring it to nearly $6.9 million. The request did not say what projects Ryan hoped to fund with the extra money, saying only it would “permit additional investment into critical building and building infrastructure repair projects.”

Though the cell locks at Lewis aren’t in the department’s current projects or funding requests, “the agency will prioritize funding it receives in the new 2020 fiscal year to address a long-term solution,” Wilder said.

Ryan’s budget request said the $5.5 million renewal budget only funds 24.5 percent of DOC’s building renewal formula. Under that formula, the department said it should receive $22.3 million.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for the governor, said the Ducey administration’s focus is on resolving the problem and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. He didn’t comment on DOC’s use of building renewal funds on other projects.

The Department of Corrections alongside the law enforcement and management team established by the governor are actively working to identify a long-term solution to this issue. We want to get this fixed, and we want to do it as soon as possible. We are communicating with the Legislature and will advocate for any additional resources necessary,” Ptak said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”