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1:07 PM Thu, Dec. 13th

'We knew they were going to riot'

Prison officials were aware inmate boiling point was at hand, former employee says

JC AMBERLYN/Miner<BR>
Former employees at the Arizona State Prison-Kingman say a number of factors contributed to the riot and unrest at the facility earlier this month.

JC AMBERLYN/Miner<BR> Former employees at the Arizona State Prison-Kingman say a number of factors contributed to the riot and unrest at the facility earlier this month.

KINGMAN - Senior officers and managers at Arizona State Prison-Kingman were allegedly aware tensions had reached the boiling point for inmates in the days leading up to a wholesale riot July 2. It was the second and by far the most serious of three disturbances that rocked the Golden Valley facility the first three days of July.

"We knew they were going to riot," said a former employee. "The inmates warned us what was coming."

In all, nine correctional officers and four inmates were injured. Six of the officers who were treated and released incurred injuries July 1 at the prison's 2,000-bed minimum security Cerbat Unit, when a group of inmates attempted to harm another inmate. The incident was classified as a disturbance, one step above an incident and one step below a riot. A riot did in fact occur, however, the following day at the roughly 1,500-bed medium security Hualapai Unit.

Officials have said the riot began when a single inmate became aggressive with a correctional officer.

That officer committed suicide Wednesday at his home in Bullhead City. Prison managers confirmed the 30-year-old guard was involved in an altercation with an inmate when the riot erupted.

One former employee said mismanagement and half a dozen big and small grievances among prisoners led to the pandemonium. According to former prisoners and employees, there was no single issue that brought the prison to the flashpoint of a riot, and a riot it was.

Twelve hours

"Pure chaos" is how one inmate described the riot in a letter to his mother that was provided to the NBC affiliate in Phoenix. The man also said inmates rioted because they felt officers mistreated them and were excessive in the use of Tasers and pepper spray.

The man told his mother that when the riot began "every cop was scared" and that they were left alone without supervision for 12 hours.

The woman hopes for an independent investigation into the riot at the private prison, in addition to the one now being conducted by the Arizona Department of Corrections. Democrats in the Legislature also are calling for a third-party review and Gov. Doug Ducey has delayed awarding any private prison contracts until Sept. 22, with the goal of having the investigation complete.

The Tucson-based American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker humanitarian organization that seeks to reform the justice system, among other causes. The group is virulently opposed to for-profit prisons and has said 60 days isn't enough time to thoroughly review what happened.

A local woman who resigned her position before prisoners took control of huge swaths of the prison and essentially destroyed four of five housing units, told the Miner that inmates warned her that frustrations and emotions were running high.

"I left because everyone knew what was coming and management didn't heed anybody's warning," said the woman, who worked at the prison for several years. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she signed a nondisclosure agreement with Management Training Corporation, operator of the private Golden Valley prison. The agreement prohibits current or former employees from discussing their work experiences at the prison.

Litany of complaints

"Their frustration level was just too much," said the woman, who spent time with inmates in an office and on the yard. Examples, she said, include the aforementioned allegation that corrections officers are too quick to use Tasers or pepper spray to defuse situations. She said inmates were also stressed because they had constantly been put on lockdown off and on over the previous three months.

Another concern is medical care for inmates had allegedly deteriorated to the point it was virtually nonexistent after MTC began providing health care when a third-party provider's contract wasn't renewed. In February, inmates who were upset over health care virtually burned to the ground a 3,000-bed federal prison that MTC operated in Texas. The company has since lost its contract to manage the facility - and the town of Raymondville owes multiple millions of dollars on a prison that was destroyed - and 400 employees lost their jobs.

A less serious grievance for inmates was the loss of movie night, reserved as a reward for inmates with good records.

"It was a lot of little things and big things," said the woman. She said employees from the bottom to the top would hold so-called town hall meetings to give inmates the opportunity to air grievances, but nothing they ever requested was approved or otherwise acted upon.

Worship became a problem. She said there were hard feelings among Muslim inmates over the prison reportedly failing to meet their needs over Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began June 18. Adherents fast and drink no food or water from sunrise to sunset throughout the month. She made it clear, however, that the riot was not sparked by the Muslim inmate population.

Inmates banded together

"The races were actually standing together for once," she said, despite no single issue unifying them. There were even concerns over amenities, she said. Inmates at the less secure Cerbat Unit have air conditioning and access to a microwave oven. Inmates at the Hualapai Unit have evaporative coolers that don't function well in humid conditions and no access to microwaves, said the woman.

Employee morale is horrible, she said, since correctional officers are made to work copious amounts of overtime - sometimes 16 and even 20 hours a day - and fatigue, she said, could have played a role in the riot and disturbances.

"Inmates know when the guards have been on duty for extended hours," she said. "All they have to do is watch. They know when guards are tired and tired people don't always have the best people skills."

No guess on damages

MTC and the Arizona Department of Corrections continue to investigate the riot and other incidents.

Extensive damage led to the closure of four of five dormitories and the movement of nearly 1,200 inmates to other detention centers.

After more than 1,000 prisoners were moved to county jails in the riot's aftermath, another 133 were moved on July 9 to jails in Apache, Navajo and Santa Cruz counties, according to Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux.

Lamoreaux said estimates on what it might cost to clean and repair the significant damage have not yet been completed, but whatever the costs, Lamoreaux said they will be paid by MTC, which has agreed to bear the financial burden.

Corporate spokesman Issa Arnita said the company also continues to assess the damage done at the prison as well as the cost of the response from local and state authorities, and the cost of transporting inmates, including more than 100 that were sent to a facility in New Mexico near the Texas border.

Arnita said MTC hired a company to do the majority of the cleanup and it brought in 35 employees, many hired through a local temp agency.

No staffers have been laid off and they continue to work on cleanup, as well. Arnita said the majority of debris has been removed and now "deep cleaning begins."

There is no timeline established for the Hualapai Unit to begin taking on new prisoners.

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