House Democratic leadership calls for Lewis Prison whistleblower investigation

The letter, authored by Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, and Reps. Randall Friese D-Tucson, Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, and Athena Salman, D-Tempe, states that party leaders were optimistic that a sea change would come after the retirement of former director Charles Ryan, who helmed DOC for 10 years, but stepped down in August following growing criticism and media reports that he was aware of the extent of the dysfunction in Lewis Prison. However, the letter says that optimism was “premature.”

By: Arren Kimbel-Sannit 12/5/19

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives sent a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey today calling for an investigation into allegations in a recent whistleblower report that administrators at a state prison suppressed evidence that hundreds of cell doors were broken or damaged. 

This marks the second time that lawmakers have called for corrective action at DOC in a year — a unit of the prison was already closed for repairs after similar allegations were made in media reports in the spring.

The whistleblower disclosure, which was filed on December 2, was written by an associate deputy warden at Arizona State Prison Complex – Lewis named Shaun Holland. In a letter to the governor and Department of Corrections Director David Shinn, Holland wrote that doors across the prison were failing “at an alarming rate,” and that the prison administration was hiding the disrepair by closing out repair orders without fixing any of the locks. 

Today’s letter, authored by Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, and Reps. Randall Friese D-Tucson, Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, and Athena Salman, D-Tempe, states that party leaders were optimistic that a sea change would come after the retirement of former director Charles Ryan, who helmed DOC for 10 years, but stepped down in August following growing criticism and media reports that he was aware of the extent of the dysfunction in Lewis Prison. However, the letter says that optimism was “premature.”

“It should go without saying that simply writing down that a broken door as ‘repaired’ without actually repairing it does not fix the problem and puts both Corrections Officers and inmates in danger,” the letter states. “ADW Holland has gone on the record to report an unacceptable lack of action to address known, documented hazards that put the lives of officers and inmates at risk every day. It is vital that you initiate an immediate investigation of ADW Holland’s allegations and, if verified, hold those responsible immediately accountable.”

Gov. Doug Ducey said he was aware of the letter and that fixing the locks is a “top priority,” and that the problems would be addressed with new doors and additional resources.

Ducey said he trusts the information he is getting from DOC.

“It’s deja vu all over again,” Fernandez said in an interview. “We’re talking about the people who work in our state, and any way you look at it, the inmates are under our care. We have a responsibility to make sure they’re safe as well.”

She said it’s urgent that the governor lays out a corrective course of action, and that while she trusts his judgment, Democrats will be vigilant in ensuring that changes are made quickly. That said, she said it’s important not to overreact, and that asking for the resignation of DOC officials would be premature.

In a statement provided to the Arizona Capitol Times, Rev. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, said he will look into the issue.

“This is certainly an issue I will be looking into during this upcoming legislative session. I look forward to gathering accurate information on the allegations and taking any necessary steps to ensure that our prisons are secure and public safety is maintained,” Payne said.

DOC spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said in an email “the implementation of a long-term solution is currently underway.”

For criminal justice advocates, the persistence of the problems at Lewis – and further allegations of evidence suppression – mean that it’s time to take serious corrective action.

“This isn’t just about not fixing the locks,” said Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform. “We knew that was going to be a project that took quite some time. What is most disturbing is that (Holland) is essentially reporting crimes – falsification of public records.”

She said that not only is an investigation necessary, it could be time for firings – either of lower administrators who hid evidence from Shinn that security problems persisted, or Shinn himself. 

In September, Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, wrote a letter to Ducey calling for the appointment of a citizens oversight board for the department and expressing that the resignation of Ryan presented a “historic opportunity” to reform the department. 

While she told the Capitol Times today that it may be too early to place the blame on Shinn, who is still early in his tenure, it is “unbelievably discouraging” that problems at Lewis have continued months after the regime change. 

“This still does not appear to be a high enough priority,” she said. 

Hamm, for what it’s worth, said that even a citizens oversight board would not be a sufficiently meaningful remedy. She is sending a letter to Ducey today to that effect, calling this a “litmus test” of his leadership and asking that an outside expert be hired to monitor operations at the prisons with near unlimited access. 

“Frankly, Middle Ground is disappointed in the seemingly lackluster beginnings made by Director Shinn, especially given the multiple crises impacting the Department,” a copy of her letter obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times states. “Whether anyone realizes it or not, there are most likely lawsuits on the horizon. This can all be avoided with decisive, focused and immediate actions.”

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