Lack of prevention, control at heart of Kingman prison unrest

Inmates destroyed or heavily damaged four of five housing units and other parts of the prison during four days of riots in early July. (Courtesy)

Inmates destroyed or heavily damaged four of five housing units and other parts of the prison during four days of riots in early July. (Courtesy)

KINGMAN - "What we've got here is failure to communicate."

The late actor Strother Martin famously uttered that oft-misquoted line in his role as the prison captain in the classic Paul Newman film, "Cool Hand Luke."

Investigators with the Arizona Department of Corrections came to the same conclusion - one of many conclusions - in their report regarding the causes of four days of riots at Arizona State Prison-Kingman in early July.

Failure to communicate before, during and after the destructive riots was at the root of it all.

Following the report's release, Gov. Doug Ducey canceled the state's contract with private prison operator Management and Training Corporation. Ducey, however, plans to replace the private operator of the Golden Valley facility with another for-profit prison management company, leading critics to question if the incarceration of people is a task best suited to private enterprise.

The investigation into the riot indicates MTC failed at every step to prevent the riots - and to control them once they began, despite repeated warnings from an increasingly frustrated inmate population.

They were even slow in feeding and providing water to inmates on day four, which led to a third riot.

Unresponsive, inconsistent, heavy-handed or apathetic, investigators determined MTC's leadership had so poorly managed staff and inmates that frustrations rose right along with the summertime temperatures.

It all boiled over July 1.

Until last week, the public was led to believe the violent insurrection was due to unrelated incidents, officially defined as two disturbances and one riot, all caused by unruly inmates who ignored orders.

The first occurred July 1 at the minimum-security Cerbat Unit when, according to investigators, a serious failure to communicate among MTC staff led to releasing into general population an inmate suspected of stealing contraband cell phones and illicit drugs from inmates of another race.

Mexican national inmates had warned correctional officers that they would harm the black inmate who allegedly stole the phones and narcotics from them. Black inmates also advised guards that their lives could be in danger from Mexican nationals if the inmate was returned to the yard.

Inmates began to gather by race at about 5:45 p.m.

The black inmate was released into the general population yard at about 6 p.m.

A group of inmates attacked him, as promised, 10 minutes later. The inmate was escorted across the yard as groups of inmates followed to "again relay the message that inmate [name redacted] must be removed from general population," according to the ADOC report.

The inmates surrounded the officers and two Designated Armed Response Teams responded.

African-American inmates attacked five officers, who were injured and evacuated. Four were transported to Kingman Regional Medical Center.

One officer was injured while hiding in a ceiling.

Meanwhile, the riot was on. Inmates broke into rooms and shattered windows in the housing and medical units. They damaged surveillance cameras outside of housing units and other buildings.

They used tables as shields and advanced on the shift commander's office. The leader of one of the DART teams used a sting ball grenade, a device that shoots a full radius of rubber balls at a high velocity. The inmates abandoned the charge and left.

Deputies with the Mohave County Sheriff's office arrived at 7:55 p.m. to patrol the perimeter.

At 8 p.m., MTC incident commanders realized not all staff had been accounted for. Two captains, one with ADOC and the other MTC, canvassed the prison. A correctional officer was found hiding in a housing unit. A civilian contract commissary worker was locked in the inmate commissary with inmate workers assigned to the commissary. Three civilian contract food workers and three corrections officers were locked in the kitchen with inmate workers. None of them were injured during the riot.

Control of the prison did not return to MTC until 10:45 p.m., more than four hours after the inmate was first attacked.

Forty Cerbat inmates deemed to be the most involved were ultimately sent to other prisons.

An ADOC monitor was critical of Cerbat Unit Warden Rick Sullivan, according to the report.

"Although Warden Sullivan was physically on site, he did not have a good grasp of the situation," wrote the monitor. "He did not take charge and guide the incident response."

The Cerbat riot would seem like an afterthought by the next night, when all hell would break loose next door in the medium-security Hualapai Unit.