Arizona severs ties with prison operator over July riots

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona severed ties Wednesday with a private prison operator over what the state says was a string of troubling security and training lapses that led to violent riots in July.

Gov. Doug Ducey announced the action against Centerville, Utah-based Management and Training Corp. after the state released a scathing report about numerous issues at the Kingman prison, including a "culture of casual indifference toward staff and training" that contributed to the riots.

The state said the prison completed none of the mandated supervisor training for the 2015 fiscal year and claimed the company offers minimal training in the area of communication skills and crisis intervention for its guards.

"What happened at Kingman was frightening, disturbing and completely unacceptable," Ducey said at a news conference.

A report on the riots released just as the governor was preparing to speak said the private prison operator actively discouraged its employees from being truthful with state Department of Corrections officials onsite.

"I think you'll see the Arizona Department of Corrections take a look in the mirror as to how they can improve. But they were not getting information from the private prison operator," Ducey said. "When they are not telling our monitors what's happening, when they're actually being encouraged by their company to not be forthright, it made it very difficult for them to do their jobs."

Ducey said none of the blame should rest on the Corrections Department, which has had heightened monitoring of MTC's Kingman operations since three violent criminals escaped in 2010 and went on a multi-state crime spree. He brushed off questions as to whether state prisons Director Charles Ryan or any of his staff had responsibility for the breakdowns that led to the riot.

"If you want to talk about accountability, here you've got a prison operator that is being terminated," he said.

MTC strongly refuted the conclusions made in the report in a lengthy statement.

"We take significant issue with the conclusions in this report," the statement said. "ADC took staff and inmate allegations as facts and drew conclusions from them without giving us an opportunity to respond."

The company noted that it had gotten glowing reviews from state inspectors, and there were five state prison officials assigned to the prison.

"The notion that we had a "culture of disorganization, disengagement, and disregard of ADC policies and fundamental inmate management and security principles" based on one investigation that spanned a few weeks — doesn't consider the overwhelming positive audits ADC has conducted over the last five years," the company said.

MTC spokesman Issa Arnita said the company does not plan to challenge the contract cancellation.

"It's not in MTC's nature to do that, and we want to do what's best for the state," Arnita said.

Ducey said the state will do an assessment of the five other private prisons in the state — including one in Marana operated by MTC. And he defended the state's use of private prisons and a plan to contract for 1,000 new beds in the coming months.

"This is the most effective way for us to provide public safety to the public in a financially responsible way," the Republican governor said.

The prison was the site of a 2010 escape in which three inmates broke out with the help of an accomplice. Two of the inmates killed a New Mexico couple.

Prisons Director Charles Ryan promised after the escape that the Kingman facility would be under heightened scrutiny. But the report released Wednesday said more than one-third of the deficiencies found in the prison in 2010 still existed five years later.

The unrest began July 1 in a minimum-security unit when private corrections officers tried to stop an inmate-on-inmate assault. A full-blown riot broke out the next day in the prison's medium-security unit. It left some housing units so badly damaged that more than 1,100 prisoners had to be moved to other facilities. Nine corrections officers suffered minor injuries.

The report painted a picture of a violent riot over the July 4th weekend prompted by a confrontation between a private prison guard and an inmate where the guard used "excessive and unjustified force."

Over the next 10 hours, inmates rampaged through several housing units, trashing the facilities. Efforts to use pepper spray and non-lethal crowd control projectiles failed, and order wasn't restored until past dawn the next day.

Inmates threw rocks, broom handles and liquids at a tactical response team. They shattered windows, damaged surveillance cameras, used mattresses to block officers and stormed a shift commander's office using tables as shields.

The report blamed MTC command staff for refusing to use its own tactical units or those from corrections to try to stop the riot early.

The root cause of the riot was inmates rebelling against prison conditions and staff who had been treating them poorly.