PHOENIX — A legislative panel approved the Arizona Department of Corrections’ request to use nearly $18 million to replace faulty locks that have allowed inmates at state prisons to get out of their cells.
Some of the funding will also go toward replacing fire detection systems that the department acknowledged have been broken for the past decade, requiring some prisons to have correctional officers on around-the-clock “fire watch” patrol.
The Joint Committee on Capital Review on Tuesday unanimously approved the agency’s request to use $17.7 million for the first phase of a three-year plan to replace locks, fire safety systems and cooling systems at the state’s Lewis prison. The department still must find a funding source for the $26.2 million needed for the second and third phases of the project.
The second phase of the plan will upgrade an evaporative cooling system at the Lewis prison, at a cost of about $11.3 million. In the third phase, the department plans to replace locks, a fire alarm system, and a heating and cooling system at the Yuma prison, which is expected to cost nearly $14 million. The department estimated that the entire project will be completed in 2021.
In addition, the department plans to use $300,000 in federal grant money to replace the evaporative cooling system at a unit in the state’s Tucson prison.
The commission instructed the Department of Corrections to provide it with quarterly updates on the project’s status. The department must also submit a report to the committee by Oct. 1 listing all inoperable fire alarm and suppression systems at state prisons, with estimates for the cost of replacing or repairing them.
ABC15 revealed in April that cell door locks in three units at the Lewis prison didn’t actually lock, which had resulted in several assaults against correctional officers and inmates. The Department of Corrections said it became aware of the issue in November 2017 and attributed the problem to inmates tampering with the locks.
The Department of Corrections initially sought to resolve the problem with “pinning,” a process in which a metal pin is inserted into latches that are welded onto either side of a door. The department began padlocking the doors in April after it became clear that inmates were able to remove the pins, it said.
“We wanted to give this a shot to see how well the pinning of the doors would work. During the summer, inmates periodically were still tampering with the doors,” Department of Corrections Director Chuck Ryan told the committee.
Democratic members of the committee were unimpressed with Ryan’s explanations. House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, questioned why the Department of Corrections didn’t inform the Legislature of the problems after learning about them in 2018.
“Your job is to keep people that have been sentenced off the streets. Yet the locks don’t work. Why have you not come before us to tell us how critical this is?” Fernandez said. “How have we been so negligent for so long?”
Ryan said the agency contacted correctional departments in 47 other states to ask if they’d had similar problems with their doors. He said it found five states with similar issues. Ryan said the department will replace the sliding cell doors, which have a pneumatic locking system, with new doors that use a rack-and-pinion, gear-driven locking system.
“We think it is far more secure,” Ryan said.
Problems with fire detection systems piqued the ears of the committee’s Democrats. After reviewing video from the Lewis prison, Ryan said the department also found at least one incident in which an inmate intentionally started a fire. Fernandez noted that inmates whose doors were pinned or padlocked would not be able to escape their cells if a fire broke out and questioned what would happen if staff had to go through a unit and unpin all the doors during a fire.
The Buckeye fire marshal signed off on the plan as temporary solutions, though the department acknowledged to the committee that the state fire marshal later indicated that the fix “was not ideal.” Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said that was why the panel was discussing the issue.
“It’s not ideal. We’re here to fix it. That’s our job this morning,” Leach said.