corrections Archives - Talking Guns


Steve MercadoOctober 7, 201917min126500

 

 

Deputy Guzman in his own words,

On March 31, 2019, I arrived to work and grabbed all my paperwork for my overtime post in Pod 4. Before I go any further, let me just touch base on Pod 4 first. Pod 4 is what we call the Special Needs Pod, a.k.a. SNP. The people housed in this area are people who would not do well in a General Population unit. Aside for being on medications for mental health, (i.e. bipolar, schizophrenia, etc.) these people also have a higher potential of being taken advantage of by other inmates. So much like the maximum security units are used to keep people who don’t play well with others, separate. We use this pod to protect these individuals of that risk. So now that that’s out of the way let me continue with my day.

I did a head-count in the unit and appeared to be accurate with my paperwork. “As soon as count clears, we can start some out-time and then later close up shop and start my regular graveyard shift.”

At approximately 1930 Hours, the head-count in the facility was cleared and it was time to begin out-time. Prior to opening all the doors, I give my usual announcement over the intercom, briefly explaining my expectations and rules. A minute later, the doors are opened using the computer at my desk.

Inmates speed walk to the tablets, some to get front row to the TV area, some for access to the showers and others begin to make a line in front of the deputy station. All familiar to me as it’s seen almost on a daily. What was NOT familiar was THAT guy. As everyone is doing what appears to be the norm to me, he walked in front of my desk with his hands behind his back. Without breaking eye contact he stared at me until he was past my desk and continued on. It’s not uncommon in here to see people off in their own world. Mental health issues are a reality people often mistake for something else.

I quickly shook that off and continued on with the people in front of my desk. One of the first rules I learned (if not all, then most people in a correctional setting) is “keep your head on a swivel.” Second, “Never sit down when you have inmates out.” Well… I eventually broke that one.

I finished helping the last person near my desk and took a look around the pod. Some were playing chess while others shuffling cards. People were sitting near the TV area watching a movie, and others doing laps outside in the rec area. But THIS guy. This guy walked in front of my desk again and would not break eye contact. So I greeted him. “What’s up man? How’s it goin’?” And he replied with… nothing. He continued to stare until he walked past my desk and continued on. Something was not right.

As I watched him slowly walk away from the desk to start another lap inside the day room, someone approached and asked if I could look up their next court date. So as I log in, I pull out the chair from the desk and sit down. This process only takes, if anything, 10 seconds to do. So the court date was given and that person left. As I turn around to stand up, I had another inmate approach me from the outside rec area and ask if I could do the same for him. I had the inmate come around the desk and the results were given. Here, at this moment, is where things began to go a different direction.

The inmate asked me a question about his charges. And after that question was answered, he asked another. And then another…. and then another. In the process of answering these questions, I noticed someone in orange standing off to my left. At a distance, not yet close enough to the yellow and black line around my desk. I did not address it or pay TOO much attention to it because I was under the impression that it was just another inmate wanting to have access to his room. To put his shower shoes away or lock up their ramen noodles so no one steals it. Either way, through my peripheral vision, I knew someone was there.

I continued answering these questions and realized TWO things. First thing, I haven’t seen ol’ boy in a minute. So I do a quick glance in front of my desk, towards the TV area and he was not in sight. So I looked up at a mirror that hangs on the pillar in front of my desk. I turn my head and realize that the person who I saw in my peripheral, was actually the guy who had been staring at me since the beginning of out-time. Second thing, I realized had been sitting down for longer than I had wanted.

I immediately stopped answering questions for the other inmate and addressed this guy. “Did you need something?” Silence was the response. “Do you have any questions?” This inmate looks down at his feet, and slightly rocking his body back and forth. He then looks at me again without saying a word. “I need you to keep walking. I don’t need you standing behind me. Come around the desk if you have any questions.”

Right after this is when he charged at me the first time. When he charged at me, I was still trying to figure out if he was rocking forward and was waiting on the “back” part. I then realized there would be no “back” at that point. I pushed off the desk and he landed in front of me. I pushed off him and stood up at the same time. I covered my head and tried to move away from my desk into an open area. He continued swinging and as I side stepped away, he tripped and fell to the ground. Here is the space I needed. I reach behind me and press my duress pager, signaling for backup to my location. I begin to move away from my desk into an area that’s open and away from keyboards and monitors. I move to this area knowing there are no inmates there or any that can sneak up behind me without me being aware. The inmate stands up and charges at me for a second time. I swing and he ends up on the ground. The perfect opportunity to go in and handcuff… and we can call it a day! But, no, I can’t… I have 55 inmates out and about. Going to the ground is not the smartest thing to do. I back away towards the entrance of the pod. That’s where my back up is coming through. Oh snap! He’s charging at me again!

As I continue to defend myself, I begin to bob and weave as best as I could while walking closer and closer to the entrance. I’m seeing more and more orange come closer to me. I have to end this or get out of this area. I reach for the inmates left arm and as I was about to pull him on the ground, I see another inmate start to swing, so I pushed. But I forgot to let off the arm I was holding on to and went to the ground anyway. I was now I top of two inmates and more than a handful of inmates were within arms’ reach.

My right knee is on top of one inmate, my left leg pushing off the ground putting constant pressure on both inmates. My right hand keeping the inmates hand away from my face. And my left hand reaching for the only tool I had available — my pepper spray. I began to yell at everyone to get back and cell in. I repeated it several times as people began to leave. Some were pulling on the inmate’s feet. My thoughts; Is he trying to pull him out? Prone him down and help? “GET BACK AND CELL IN!!”

I’m now clear from inmates, except this guy walking up… “Guzman, are you good? Do you need more help?”

I take a deep breath and reply “I’m good! You need to cell in right now!”

“Are you sure? I’m here if you need it…”

Again, I look at him and reply, “thank you but I need you to listen… my back up is coming through those doors any second. And you don’t want to be standing there when they come through. I need you to cell in.”

I now look down to see what I’m dealing with on the second inmate… oh… he has him in a choke hold. The second inmate looks at me and says, “I’m sorry deputy! I couldn’t just sit there and watch!”

I replied “You’re fine! Just. Don’t. Move!” I haven’t heard a single radio call since I hit my pager… where’s my back up?? Why have I not heard anything??? A brief moment later I realized my earpiece was not where it was supposed to be — in my ear. So I unplugged the earpiece and radioed for back up. “I need back up to pod 4… inmate fighting staff!” I hear the elevator doors. Someone is coming. *sigh* I look down and ask the guy why. His reply was, “You made me bleed my own blood!” Confused, I asked, “what did you think was going to happen?!” And he continued stating, “Because of you, I’ll never see my family again. Because of you, I’ll never see my kids. Because of you I’m in here!”

I thought to myself “I don’t even KNOW you!!” But then shook that off when I remembered what unit I was working. Today, for this moment, I was a part of his world. Back up arrived. The inmate that helped was moved away from the area. The other deputies and I rolled this inmate over and began to give instructions to give me his right arm. As I pulled his right arm out, I saw his hand was wrapped in medical gauze… and sticking out of in between his fingers was a wooden tongue depressor. Not sharpened but still, very present. I realized the only hit I took to the face, could have had a different outcome had my training been taken lightly or as a joke. Thankfully, this is never and won’t ever be the case with DTs (defensive tactics) or any other training I go through. I was then removed from the area by my Sergeant and was asked what had happened. About 40 minutes later, I found out that Davis was the last name of the guy who attacked me. I filed my report, dusted myself off and went on to continue my regular graveyard shift. I was told that if I wanted to go home and be with my family, I could. “I got one more day ‘til my weekend. I’m tired. But I don’t rest when I’m tired. I’ll rest when I’m done.” Sergeant nodded their head, told me I did a great job. And the rest of the night went on just like any other night.

A rare event occurred in our facility. Though dealing with “disruptives,” drunks, people that come in high or just plain pissed off, is a norm, attacks on staff in an open area like this in this facility is a rare thing. I come from a background of 8 years in loss prevention. This is my first law enforcement position ever. If I can give any advice to anyone new in the field, it’s these few things:

1. Keep your head on a swivel. Build that habit and it will always be second nature.

2. LISTEN when it is time to listen. Your training is crucial and important to everything you (your family in blue, or family in general) may encounter in your day-to-day life. Much like why policies are in place, someone, somewhere, went through a crappy situation and now became a training scenario. So take your training seriously.

3. Treat others the way you want to be treated. A core value that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office lives by. Respect that is EARNED goes further than respect that is TAKEN. Not everyone in jail is bad. Treat everyone fairly, and maybe one day one of them will help you out when you really need it.

And last but not least… don’t ever break your own rules. Complacency is NOT your friend. I broke my own rule because I felt comfortable. And it almost cost me my life — if not my life, then at minimum my vision. The only hit I took was to my face, but his knuckle and the tongue depressor scratched about an inch below my eye.

I have gotten support from all over the nation — my family, friends and my extended family in blue… the deepest and most humbled thank you to all of you. I will not stop when I am tired. I will stop when I am done.



Brian KovacsAugust 8, 201918min318323

You probably remember the expression, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Apparently it is for many Arizona Department of Corrections staff members as they continue to flee the department in record numbers. Many are choosing to retire or are leaving for other jobs or agencies. Is it surprising why so many people are choosing to leave? The department has been plagued with multiple scandals over the years, culminating with demands from a variety of organizations and public figures that Director Charles Ryan step down or be fired. Four department administrators recently “retired” from state service after the media released stories regarding department security deficiencies and malfeasance. Curiously, Director Ryan has not stepped down nor has he been terminated. Supposedly an unbiased, thorough investigation has begun regarding the Lewis prison security issues, and other questionable department practices.

Despite the department’s efforts at damage control, including the recent rescission of some department policies that were damaging to staff morale, employees continue to leave. A recent ten percent pay increase was negligible, and has had little, if any effect on staff recruitment or retention. In an attempt to increase staffing levels, the department has resorted to having the legislature statutorily reduce the minimum age requirement to eighteen for hiring corrections officers.

According to insiders, the department culture has not changed. Some say the department has weaponized its Administrative Investigations Unit to intimidate and silence staff members. Some staff members have received letters sent from AIU on department letterhead to their personal addresses warning them about their social media use. There are certain time and place restrictions on First Amendment rights, but that practice seems unsettling and Orwellian, and should be concerning to most. Management continues to mistreat their employees, sometimes using more subtle or surreptitious tactics because of increased public scrutiny. Employees have been denied transfers, use of their earned sick and annual leave, and assigned to unfavorable work areas as forms of retaliation and management abuse.

Working conditions in the state prison system have not improved; they have worsened in some institutions, according to sources. There have been a number of department safety issues mentioned in various publications and television news stories. There are problems with security doors not locking, giving inmates the opportunity to assault corrections staff at will. High-risk inmates are being placed in less restrictive prison environments without being properly vetted. Staffing shortages have resulted in department managers requiring staff to manage an inordinate number of inmates and liabilities. Sanitation issues exist that increase the risk of illness and disease to staff and inmates. Medical issues continue to be problematic for staff. When inmates do not receive required medical care or medication it can create health issues for inmates, and staff safety issues because of the potential for inmate retaliation. The situation becomes particularly dangerous when prisoners with mental health illnesses have not received prescribed psychotropic medications.

I am going to provide some recent examples of hazardous working conditions and dangerous security issues at the Arizona State Prison-Eyman complex in Florence, Arizona. Special Management Unit One is a so-called “lockdown” unit in the prison vernacular, and used to be considered a maximum security unit. It currently houses maximum and lower custody inmates. The sanitation in that unit is reportedly so horrid that an infestation of mice has developed. Inmates are allegedly trapping and killing them, and throwing them into the cell blocks where they are sometimes left for days. Although rare, another concern is the potential for a Hantavirus outbreak. Miscellaneous garbage is strewn about in cell blocks and officer control rooms throughout the prison, and roach infestation is widespread.

The Meadows Unit is a medium security sex offender prison also located in Eyman complex in Florence, Arizona. According to sources, a bed bug infestation has existed in that unit since approximately October 2017, and there is documentation of the problem dating back to January 2018. The bed bug problem still exists despite efforts to eradicate the parasites. Employees are concerned with the possibility of the parasites infesting their clothing, personal vehicles, and homes, thereby placing their own family members at risk. Rest assured that any evidence of the aforementioned conditions in those prisons will be eliminated prior to any facility tours attended by prison visitors. Multiple resources will be used to sanitize, organize, and put on a disingenuous display for the attendees. A DOC tour can be likened to a tour of North Korea in terms of institutional access and public transparency.

Cook Unit is another medium security sex offender prison located in Eyman complex in Florence, Arizona. Both Cook and Meadows units continue to operate by usually using one staff member to supervise one to two housing units for sometimes an entire shift ranging from 8-12 hours. Each housing unit can accommodate approximately 200 inmates. That means that one officer is expected to supervise approximately 200-400 inmates, and some inmates are being left unsupervised at times. Does that sound reasonable and safe to you? The department seems more focused on ensuring that posts are staffed with less emphasis on inmate accountability and staff safety.

Meadows Unit recently had an incident where a lone staff member had a medical emergency while working in a housing unit with approximately 160 inmates. The officer was locked in a secured control room but fell and struck his head on a concrete floor. He lay bleeding in a semi-conscious state without a backup officer present to immediately render aid. Luckily for him, an inmate reportedly went to an adjacent housing unit and notified an officer of the situation. That incident could have had a worse outcome, and demonstrates the risk to staff when understaffing occurs in those work areas.

Some sources say that an increase in attempted suicides and two recent inmate deaths at Special Management Unit One can be attributed in part to low staffing levels. On May 16, 2019, at approximately 2:00 A.M. an inmate was found dead in his cell. The deceased was reportedly discovered hanging from his cell door approximately four hours after death. Questions arose regarding staffing levels and whether the security checks were completed in a timely manner. Interestingly, the department video surveillance footage leading up to that time, and the corrections log book for that area have gone missing.

In the early afternoon of June 16, 2019, an inmate attempted to commit suicide using a homemade noose that he fashioned from a bedsheet. According to sources, he took at least six minutes or more to construct it while in a visible area of a cell block that has a video surveillance camera. He placed the noose around his neck and tied the other end of it to a safety railing on a second floor tier. He then jumped over the railing, and hanged himself. Two officers walked into the cell block as he jumped and were able to save his life. Sources said the area where the incident occurred is understaffed with only one control room officer to monitor two control rooms in an area that houses up to 96 inmates. That incident clearly underscores the danger of those prison areas where inmates are allowed to roam freely within their cell blocks during daytime hours with little or no supervision.

In the late afternoon of July 20, 2019, an inmate was found dead in his cell in an area of the prison designated for increased health and welfare security inspections. The inmate was reportedly transported to Special Management Unit One in the early morning hours that day and was taken to the unit’s medical facility. He was described as possibly being under the influence of methamphetamine and heroin. The medical facility released the inmate from their care and he was escorted to a watch cell. He was found dead in his cell later that day from a possible drug overdose. Sources indicated that one correctional officer was assigned to watch three cell blocks that day. The three cell blocks accommodated up to 24 special security watches, in total (including several suicide watches). The same officer was also required to perform other duties such as escorting inmates, feeding and clothing inmates, paperwork, etc.

Special Management Unit One is reportedly having security issues where inmates have successfully opened a locked cell door. They gained unauthorized access into a cell block and allegedly terrorized other inmates that were locked in other cells. That activity occurred multiple times in an area monitored by surveillance cameras. The Arizona Department of Corrections allegedly knew about it since July 24, 2019 but never informed corrections officers about the problem, and did not move those offending inmates from that area. Insiders said Director Ryan toured Special Management Unit One on July 26, 2019 but it is unclear if the visit was related to the cell door security issue.

ABC News affiliate, ABC15 in Phoenix, Arizona, recently reported that eight current and former Arizona Department of Corrections officers are suing the State of Arizona. They are suing for safety issues that led to inmate assaults, resulting in them suffering grievous personal injuries. According to the ABC15 report, a lawyer representing the State of Arizona argued for the case to be thrown out in the 9th District U.S. Court of Appeals because of qualified immunity. A 2008 United States Supreme Court case Pearson v. Callahan interpreted qualified immunity in part, as follows: “Qualified immunity balances two important interests–the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” The lawyer representing the State of Arizona, Nicholas Acedo, stated, “None [of the corrections officers] allege that they were tricked into accepting their jobs or that on the day of their respective assaults, they protested the unit they were assigned to or the task they were assigned.” According to the ABC15 news report, Mr. Acedo added that the plaintiffs were previously aware of the alleged understaffing and broken cell door locks. Department lawyers tried using a similar legal argument when an educator that worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections was viciously stabbed and raped at Meadows Unit at the Eyman prison complex in Florence, Arizona on January 30, 2014.

The department lawyers said the victim was issued a [two-way] radio and knew the inherent risks working around an inmate population. That teacher had no defensive weapon available at that time, and was left alone in an isolated building with no one to check on her. I don’t know about you, but I’m outraged and disgusted by remarks such as those made by the department’s attorneys. I believe they are insensitive, and place blame on the victims for the crimes committed against them. Is Mr. Acedo suggesting the Arizona Department of Corrections did not exercise power irresponsibly when it required department employees to work in areas the department knew were understaffed and had dangerous security issues? The department can’t have it both ways. It puts tremendous pressure on its staff to perform well in understaffed prison environments with ever-increasing dangers and workloads, under threat of disciplinary action if their expectations are not met. But if something goes wrong then it’s the staff’s fault for knowingly working in an environment they knew was understaffed and unsafe.

Perhaps I’m being obtuse. Am I missing something here Mr. Acedo? Yes, there are inherent dangers when you work in a law enforcement or corrections capacity, or any high-risk profession for that matter, but that’s not what I am referring to here. I am referring to known risks that could have been negated if handled properly. These are foreseeable, dangerous threats that are either preventable or created entirely by the ineptitude of department leadership; they are typically fueled by poor decision-making, and influenced heavily by political considerations. Apparently the Arizona Department of Corrections didn’t read or disregarded the news release dated Thursday, May 2, 2019 from the Arizona House Republican Caucus endorsed by 31 Arizona State Representatives. That statement reads, “Any policy that undermines public safety and jeopardizes the security of corrections officers is completely unacceptable, and we are deeply troubled by reports regarding Lewis Prison. We strongly urge the Department of Corrections to immediately take the necessary steps to address the issue, and we are encouraged that Governor Ducey has tasked former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justices Rebecca Berch and Ruth McGregor with investigating the matter. We look forward to their report and recommendations, and we stand ready to take any legislative action that may be needed.” The Arizona Department of Corrections cannot be allowed to undermine public safety or jeopardize the security of corrections staff while using department policy to diminish its responsibility or shield itself from liability.

Many state corrections employees have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and retaliation by the Arizona Department of Corrections management for speaking out against the present department culture. The current department management culture doesn’t encourage or condone individualists. Management discourages free-thinking and prefers to hire and mold robotic thinkers. The department has had five decades to create a tractable employee culture that is less likely to influence positive change within the agency. That attitude seems to be most prevalent with the old guard managers who do not want to disrupt the status quo. Considering the existing conditions within the Arizona Department of Corrections, it is not surprising that more employees have not spoken out regarding safety issues, or questioned management decisions, or their lack of regard for employee safety.

The Arizona Department of Corrections is clearly in need of significant department reforms. Recent news stories have highlighted the department’s security deficiencies, management bullying and ineptitude, as well as compromised employee and inmate safety. Unfortunately, the department culture will not change without continued public pressure and outside agency intervention. The department has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to police itself. Safeguards need to be adopted to ensure the agency upholds the duties, and responsibilities that the public has entrusted it with.