The next director of the Arizona Department of Corrections will have to address leadership problems that contributed to an ongoing issue with faulty locks at the Lewis prison, Gov. Doug Ducey said following the release of an in-depth report on the matter.
An investigation by former Arizona Supreme Court chief justices Rebecca Berch and Ruth McGregor found several issues that led to the problem with the locks going unresolved for years, including problems with the department’s leadership, up to and including outgoing Director Charles Ryan, and understaffing caused by inadequate funding for correctional officers.
Ryan is slated to retire next month after 10 years at the department’s helm, and Ducey said his successor will be tasked with addressing the leadership problems that Berch and McGregor outlined in a report that was made public last week.
“I read the same report you did, and there are changes that are going to be necessary. Director Ryan is going to be retiring in mid-September, and with new leadership, there will be an opportunity for a new start,” Ducey told reporters on Monday.
With a new leader comes a different culture at the Department of Corrections, Ducey said.
“I believe that cultural part of it is important. As I said, I read the same report that you read, and I know much of what needs to be done going forward. And I’ll have that expectation of the new director when we find that individual,” the governor said.
The problems became public earlier this year when ABC15 reported that inmates at several units in the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis were able to leave their cells or enter other inmates’ cells without permission, which led to several assaults against inmates and guards. In late 2017, the Department of Corrections tried to remedy the problem by securing the cell doors with eight-inch metal pins, and when it became clear that wasn’t working, switched to padlocks.
Berch and McGregor’s report found that Ryan was “surprisingly uninformed” of the long-running problems at the Lewis prison, and they questioned why senior managers didn’t inform the director of the problems. Some corrections employees said Ryan cultivated a “culture of fear” which dissuaded subordinates from telling him unpleasant information, and that he surrounded himself with “yes men.”
However, most others who were interviewed as part of the investigation disputed those claims and said Ryan “welcomes honesty and desires to be fully informed.”
“[R]egardless how it happened or whose fault it was, we conclude that (Ryan), for too long, remained surprisingly uninformed about the poor functioning of the locks and scope and seriousness of the danger,” Berch and McGregor concluded. “That is not acceptable.”
Some correctional officers at Lewis told investigators that their supervisors told them not to report incidents where inmates got out of their cells. The report also cited a feeling among correctional officers “that supervisors and administration just don’t have [their] backs.”
Despite the problems that the investigation uncovered, Ducey praised Ryan for his 40 years of public service. He noted, “Corrections is a big job and it’s a complex system, and I do think we have some work to do there.”
The report largely faulted funding and staffing issues for allowing the locks issue to fester and worsen at the Lewis prison. Berch and McGregor found staffing levels at the prison that the Department of Corrections considered inadequate for ensuring prison safety. Furthermore, low salaries hindered efforts by the department to fill vacant positions and retain employees after they’re hired.
That lack of funding created a “culture of complacency” that sapped morale and further exacerbated the problems at Lewis prison, the report found.
Ducey has said the state will conduct a nationwide search for Ryan’s successor. He told reporters on Monday that he wants to hire “the best possible leader” who can implement needed changes at the Department of Corrections. He said public input will be welcomed.
“We’re going to have a process where input can be provided, where people want to be at the table in terms of letting us know their thoughts and expectations. I’m very open-minded to that, and that’s how I want the process to be conducted,” Ducey said.
Ryan has faced controversy for other issues as well. Most notably, the Department of Corrections on his watch has been embroiled in a long-running federal lawsuit over inadequate health care provided to prisoners, some of whom have alleged retaliation for speaking out about the problems.
Berch and McGregor made a number of recommendations, including higher salaries for correctional officers, improved relationships between guards and supervisors, better training, improved security checks, an upgraded reporting system for incidents inside the prisons and more visits to the prisons by Department of Corrections leadership. The justices noted that all of their recommendations require funding.
Ducey on Monday said his administration is working to determine what additional financial resources the Department of Corrections will need in next year’s budget. He specifically said he wants correctional officers to be better compensated.
“The report is now public, so I think you can see the laundry list. We’re putting pencil to paper to see what’s needed and necessary. We want to prioritize that properly with the objective being public safety for the correctional officers and the inmates,” the governor said.
State agencies must submit their budget requests for the 2021 fiscal year to the governor’s office in September.