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Investigation: Leaked videos expose Arizona prison's broken cell doors

Posted at 8:56 AM, Apr 26, 2019

Officer David Nash doesn’t remember much from the night he was violently attacked inside Arizona’s Lewis Prison.

“I remember another corrections officer pulling me out of the pod,” he said. “I remember talking to someone in the ambulance and being gurneyed into the hospital.”

It was December 30, 2018.


In the prison’s Morey unit, a two-floor section of cells that houses 50 high-risk offenders, Nash was on the ground floor telling two inmates to get back in their cells when they began to attack him.

Another officer saw the attack and rushed over to the help.

But over the next 20 seconds, as the two officers struggle to flee from the inmates repeatedly punching and kicking them, another 15 inmates freely open their cell doors and rush to get into the fight.

The ambush-style attack was captured by a surveillance camera.

Watch the raw surviellance video from this incident involving Nash in the player below. WARNING: The video contains violence.

The video reveals a disturbing, everyday truth about multiple units inside Lewis: Cell doors don’t lock.

And the doors haven’t locked for years.

“It’s Jurassic Park,” said Carlos Garcia, a retired 20-year employee of the Arizona Department of Corrections.

“These are top-of-the-line offenders... They don’t even need a key”

“These are top-of-the-line offenders, and they’re running rampant with open doors. How do you like that? They don’t even need a key,” he said. “They just open their own door.”

KNXV television station has obtained surveillance video from six violent assaults inside Lewis Prison that occurred between June to December 2018. Most of the footage was leaked by concerned DOC insiders.

“This would have never seen the light of day,” said Garcia, who also represents officers for the union and is an open critic of the administration. “This was leaked out by very brave people.”

In addition to the surveillance footage, KNXV has interviewed multiple DOC officers and reviewed internal investigations, lawsuits, administrative records, and months of security inspection logs.

The documents and information show dozens of doors have been broken for at least five years and top DOC administrators, including Director Charles Ryan, know about the problem but have failed to adequately address and fix it.

DOC Director Charles Ryan

KNXV asked Director Ryan about the broken doors after a recent public event. He said DOC has received millions to repair locks and security at prisons but other projects have taken precedence over the units at Lewis.

“Well, there’s a building renewal funding process to repair the locks,” Ryan said. “It costs money, and it takes time. We receive about $5 million a year in building renewal, and there are other projects that also had to be evaluated.”

After the public event, DOC sent KNXV a lengthy statement. The department disputes the door locks are broken. Instead, officials said it’s the inmates tampering with the doors that causes them to be able to open them.

Click here to read their statement.

DOC has not yet identified to KNXV which projects took precedence over Lewis Prison's broken doors.

The leaked videos expose one of the most chaotic and dangerous prison environments that multiple independent prison experts say they’ve ever seen.

“Extreme, there’s no other way to describe it,” said Richard Subia, a prison consultant and expert witness, who spent nearly 30 years in the California prison system. “It’s clear to me that somebody who goes in there to do their job is going to be killed.”

Richard Subia

Some officers have suffered severe injuries. In February 2014, an officer was “savagely” attacked by an inmate who rushed out of a broken door.

The officer suffered physical and emotional injuries, according to a lawsuit. “(The officer) has been required to have surgery to repair his labrum and another surgery to implant a titanium plate in order to repair his facial structure.”

The officers union is working to figure out how many staff have been assaulted at Lewis Prison because of broken doors. Insiders have estimated there have been at least 15 in the past six months, if not, "many more.”

ABC15 discovered that the broken doors led to one inmate’s death last year.

Just before midnight on June 6, 2018, surveillance video shows a handful of free-roaming inmates walking in and out of a corner cell for more than 30 minutes. Inside the cell, Andrew McCormick was being beaten so badly that he died in the hospital four days later.

Watch a timelapse of the surveillance footage outside McCormick's cell on the night of the incident below. To watch the full, unedited video, click here.

“Of all places for the locks not to be working, for the safety of inmates and officers alike, what the heck?” said Jodie McCormick, Andrew’s mother, who’s planning to sue. “It makes no sense.”

According to an internal investigation into the death, investigators noted repeatedly how inmates “moved freely” throughout the incident and “opened/closed their doors without the assistance of an officer.”

Andrew McCormick

In the Morey, Rast, and Buckley units, inmates have a level four classification. That’s their level of risk and danger on a 1-to-5 scale.

More than a dozen cells were open, or “accessed,” during the incident, records show.

Officers said only one or two inmates should be out at a time and, if working properly, their cells should only open remotely by pressing a button from a control room overlooking the pod.

The death investigation also revealed how officers have accepted that the doors don’t work and all but giving up on trying to follow proper safety and security policies because controlling inmates with broken locks is nearly impossible.

“I mean, we don’t allow it, but yes it’s the norm. We did it, because everyone (officers) allowed it. A lot of it is because we are so short staffed. The inmates continually access their doors,” according to one officer who spoke to internal investigators.

Inmates are even worried about their safety.

“We call the situation a 'symphony of insanity,'" one Lewis inmate wrote to KNXV. “The predators and the drug addicts love it, but the weaker inmates live in a state of constant fear.”

“That’s just a way to deflect from the main problem… (Officers) can’t enforce when you have inmates running rampant."

On January 3, union leaders met with top DOC administrators for a regularly scheduled meeting. Director Ryan was in attendance, meeting minutes show. One of the issues the two sides discussed was the broken doors at Lewis.

In response to a question from the union about plans to fix the doors, DOC’s division director of operations, Carson McWilliams said, “I did experience the issue at the Rast close yard one evening last month. We need to do a number of things to address such as working on keeping doors properly maintained through routine preventative maintenance, holding inmates accountable for tampering with them and repairing the doors so they cannot be opened from the inside. We are putting together a plan to start door repairs in Rast, Morey and Buckley. It all starts with consistent, impactful enforcement of the inmate behavior.”

Carlos Garcia was at the meeting and called the response a well-crafted deflection of the administration’s failure to fix the problem.

“It’s almost poetry. He must have gotten that from Edgar Allen Poe,” he said. “That’s just a way to deflect from the main problem…It starts with you fixing the doors. (Officers) can’t have consistency. (Officers) can’t enforce when you have inmates running rampant. It’s all blowing smoke.”

Officers said the inmates don’t fear punishments.

“A lot of these inmates don’t care about a punishment. They’re lifers,” said Officer Eduardo Garza, who was assaulted and badly injured after an October incident.

Officers Eduardo Garza and David Nash

Garza, who needed two surgeries to repair his nose, and another officer were attacked by multiple inmates who refused to get back into their cells.

During the attack, more inmates left their cells to join in.

When it was over, video shows Garza’s blood smeared all over the ground.

Watch the raw surviellance video from this incident involving Garza in the player below. WARNING: The video contains violence.

This incident was similar to the assault that injured Officer Nash. The pair of officers are planning to file a lawsuit against DOC.

“The inmates are running the unit, there’s no doubt in my mind when I see what’s going on here,” expert Richard Subia said. “They don’t appear to be concerned with any ramifications that are going to occur.”

Subia said the units should have been shut down and the inmates moved if the doors weren’t able to be fixed, and if temporary measures fail.

“You don’t continue to operate in an unsafe environment when you’re putting people’s live at risk,” he said.

Outside the recent public event, Ryan told ABC15 that the issue is under control – something officers and the union strongly dispute.

“We have repinned the doors, and we have directed staff to secure the inmates who have managed to tamper with the locks, and they have been placed in pods that are tamper proof,” Ryan said. “That has slowed down, or greatly reduced, the tampering and removal of the pins.”

When KNXV attempted to show Ryan photos of the chaos captured on the leaked surveillance videos, a DOC spokesman shut down the interview and said to call his office with further questions.

To control the inmates, DOC has relied on using metal pins inserted into slots that have been welded onto the doors.

Months of security inspection logs from August 2018 to April 2019 show door problems are routinely documented, but rarely fixed. The documents obtained by ABC15 also show pins repeatedly break and go missing, which means 8-inch pieces of steel are likely in the possession of high-risk inmates.

For the pins that do remain, surveillance videos expose how ineffective the measure can be. Inmates can be seen routinely walking around pods and lifting pins inserted in other cell doors.

Metal pin and empty slot

“What you see is only one (inmate) has to get out,” Subia said. “If one gets out, he can pull the pins on the other doors.”

In the January meeting between the union and the administration, DOC said it will begin fixing doors in July.

But after years of problems, officers said similar promises have come and gone before and tell KNXV “they’ll believe it when they see it.”

Until then, they just hope no other officers and inmates get injured or killed.

“They’ve lost control there, and (the administration) is keeping it as quiet as they can,” Garcia said. “But now the cat's out of the bag. We’ve had so many injuries and staff assaults directly from this. They can no longer hide from this.”

Lewis Prison