Security 'gaps' at prison loom large

Exec at private lockup fears more escapes
2010-08-20T00:00:00Z 2010-09-25T00:32:13Z Security 'gaps' at prison loom largeHoward Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star
August 20, 2010 12:00 am  • 

PHOENIX - An executive with the firm that runs the private prison from which three dangerous inmates escaped promised Thursday to beef up security but said that's no guarantee it won't happen again.

"Escapes occur at both public and private," Odie Washington, a vice president of Management and Training Corp., said while noting it's incumbent on the company and state to do whatever is necessary to close those security gaps prisoners can take advantage of.

But a security review of the MTC-run prison near Kingman, released Thursday, reveals that what Washington referred to as "gaps" were more like chasms. As a result, State Corrections Director Charles Ryan has ordered 150 of the highest-risk prisoners removed.

The report shows the prison perimeter-alarm system was essentially useless. Bulbs showing the status of the fence were burned out on a control panel. Guards were not patrolling the fence. And a door to a dormitory that was supposed to be locked had been propped open with a rock, helping the inmates escape.

Washington, however, said that's not the fault of the corporation. He said company employees at Kingman never told anyone at the corporate headquarters about the problems.

Ryan admitted his own audit team, which had been to the prison before the July 30 escape, "didn't see or didn't report" the shortcomings.

All that is significant because the three inmates escaped when an accomplice tossed them wire cutters and they made a 30-by-22-inch hole that went undetected for hours.

Of particular concern to Ryan is the fence.

"What was found were excessive false alarms," Ryan disclosed, noting over 16 hours on July 30 there were 89 alarms. "The system was not maintained or calibrated."

The result, he said, was employees were "desensitized" to the alarms going off, and it took 11 to 73 minutes for staffers to check out problems and reset the alarms.

"That is absolutely unacceptable," he said.

The last of the three inmates, a convicted murderer, along with an accomplice, was recaptured Thursday night. The other two were recaptured, but not before they were linked to the deaths of an Oklahoma couple who were in New Mexico.

"This is a terrible tragedy, and the department and the contractor have a lot of work to do," Ryan said.

The findings prompted Ryan to put limits on what kind of criminals can be housed at the facility.

Until now, the 1,508-bed medium-security section has included people convicted of murder.

His order removes, at least from Kingman, anyone convicted of first-degree murder, anyone who attempted escape in the last decade and anyone with more than 20 years left on a sentence. All told, 148 inmates were taken from the facility.

But Ryan would not rule out allowing murderers back in the prison after he is satisfied that security has been upgraded.

He defended the classification system that allows convicted murders - and even lifers - to serve their time in medium-security prisons.

Gov. Jan Brewer sidestepped questions about the system, saying it was in place long before she became governor in January 2009.

"It is something that maybe should be reviewed," the governor said Thursday, but added, "That classification is used across America."

Ryan said he remains convinced there is a role for private prisons. About 6,400 of the more than 40,000 people behind bars in Arizona are in private prisons. Another 1,760 Arizona prisoners are at an out-of-state facility.

The Republican-controlled Legislature remains very much in favor of private prisons, as does Brewer. That support hasn't wavered because of the escape.

Brewer said the report from Ryan underscores her belief the escape was caused by human error, and nothing inherent in private prisons.

"It's very obvious those alarms should have been responded to," the governor said.

But the problems that Ryan sketched out go beyond the actions - or inactions - of guards.

Washington admitted there are "significant construction issues" with the perimeter fence and the alarm system that will have to be handled.

And Ryan found flaws with the entire way MTC allowed the facility to be operated.

For example, he said no one was making regular checks along the fence to look for breaches. And Ryan said guards were "not effectively controlling inmate movements" within the prison system.

Other flaws included inmates not wearing required ID badges, grooming requirements being ignored and proper searches of people going into the facility not being done.

Casslyn Welch, the woman accused of providing the wire cutters and a vehicle, was banned from the prison after she was caught trying to bring in drugs. But Ryan said prison officials still allowed her to talk to inmates on the phone, making it possible for her to help plan the breakout.

Welch and John McCluskey, her fiancée and cousin, were caught Thursday night in northeastern Arizona. Tracy Province and Daniel Renwick have been recaptured.

Another problem is that the design of the prison allows anyone to drive up close to the facility. Corrections officials want traffic routed away from the fence.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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