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Arizona: DOC chief puts OK riot where it belongs: on CCA’s shoulders!!!

Evaluating recent riot, private prison system
August 8, 2004

On May 14, more than 500 Arizona inmates rioted at the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, Okla., a private prison where more than 1,200 Arizona inmates were being housed because of overcrowding at state facilities. Inmates fought with recreational and construction equipment and broke through fences and other barriers. The disturbance lasted several hours and dozens of inmates were injured, including two who were hospitalized for weeks. In response, the state is bringing one-third of the inmates at the facility back to Arizona because of concerns about management by Corrections Corporation of America.

The debate over private prisons took prominence during last year's special legislative session, when the state Legislature approved the construction of 1,000 private and 1,000 public beds (now in planning), as well as the temporary lease of out-of-state private prison space. The state currently contracts for about 4,400 beds in private prisons.

Republic reporter Amanda J. Crawford sat down with Arizona Department of Corrections Director Dora Schriro to discuss the riot and other private-prison issues.

QUESTION: What happened to start the riot?

ANSWER: There was a precipitating event the day before and that confrontation was not managed adequately. It simmered and then boiled over the next day.

Q: This was a riot that was caused by racial conflicts, right?

A: In my opinion, no. It was caused by poor management of the population by the facility. That there was disagreement between inmates in different racial groups is a challenge we always face in the department. But it was the reading of those symptoms and the management of those populations that allowed this thing to kick off and continue.

Q: What do you think the prison's management did wrong?

A: Before the actual melee, there were a number of warning signs that they should have picked up on.

Their staffing was off; they purported to have the correct number of staff but in fact they were double-counting people.

During the situation, there were other problems, not the least of which was failure to provide timely notice to our monitors. Also, they never activated their emergency response - that clearly impacted their ability to contain and then to quell the disturbance. And their supervisors were inadequate . . . in terms of not having the skill to give direction to staff to get the matter under control.

Afterwards, our concerns continued about the inadequacy of the investigation. We got there more than a day ahead of their own team. I was concerned about the way in which the medical assessment was done. But I think most vexing of all is that it was then and, to some extent, continues to be difficult to obtain timely and reliable information.

Q: What actions have you decided to take?

A: I think most significantly thus far was our conclusion very early on that the facility was unable to manage all of the inmates we had sent to them, all of whom are low-medium and medium security inmates only.

It was our determination that we would pull out any of the Level 2 inmates who were not involved in that disturbance. We have been returning inmates in small groups on a weekly basis. Thus far we have transferred back about 300 inmates. In the end we will bring back a total of about 400.

There are other decisions, significant, that are still pending. A great concern to us still is that their corrective action plan is not yet fully implemented and as a result there is a modified lockdown of considerable magnitude that is still in effect today.

Q: Based on this event and incidents at some other of their facilities recently, will you continue to contract with CCA?

A: That remains to be seen. We are at a critical juncture now.

Q: What is the status of the public expansion approved by the Legislature last year?

A: We also had approval to expand state facilities by a total of 1,000 beds. These are going to be Level 1 beds, which is really important for us because it is the first time the department has built minimum-security beds. By building the cheapest beds, which are also the fastest to build, not only do we increase our capacity with the least expenditure, we then move Level 1 inmates to Level 1 beds that automatically frees up more space for Level 2 inmates, where we are still short on space. What we are doing is expanding Perryville, Tucson and Douglas. Our construction will be done this November, and we will begin moving in inmates in December.

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