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New videos show inmates lighting fires outside Arizona prison cells

Posted at 11:20 AM, Jun 06, 2019

In a chaotic incident that lasted more than hour, inmates inside a maximum security section at Lewis Prison repeatedly set fires outside of their cells, eventually forcing the evacuation of the entire unit.

It happened on November 8, 2018 in the Rast Max Unit.

Surveillance video obtained by KNXV television station shows a team of officers watched much of the destruction unfold with little or no intervention.

The reason: Top officials inside the prison directed the staff to let inmates get it out of their system and avoid calling a critical incident, which would have to be thoroughly documented and sent to the Arizona Department of Corrections’ headquarters.

As a result of this story, those top officials are no longer employed with the Department of Corrections.

“The warden and the deputy warden of this unit, they were watching this cluster going on saying we want to minimize this,” said Carlos Garcia, a retired lieutenant and union grievance coordinator. “They don’t want anybody to see this and send out the message that we can’t control our prison. They are in fear, fear of this director.”

The deputy warden was Jeff Rode, and the warden was Berry Larsen. Both retired Wednesday, the day after ABC15 contacted the state about the incident.

KNXV spoke with independent sources who said both Rode and Larsen were aware of the chaotic situation.

Outside experts who reviewed video of the incident said it is one of most bizarre, shocking, and poorly-handled incidents they’ve ever seen.

FULL COVERAGE: Lewis prison broken cell locks, fires investigation

“I’m just at a loss of words,” said David Starnes, a corrections expert who worked for 27 years in California’s prison system. “In a lockup unit, this is by far the worst I have seen.”

Starnes added, “I’m just surprised that the prison hasn’t been put under federal receivership.”

You can watch the full video from inside the Max Rast Unit below.

The incident further exemplifies a deeply broken culture that normalizes significant safety risks inside Lewis Prison. It also happened at the same time when officers were struggling to maintain control in multiple other units where many cells didn’t properly lock.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections called the incident a “dereliction of leadership and inconsistent with expectations.”

The statement said official reporting from the incident was “incomplete and inaccurate, clearly downplaying the severity and scope of the incident.”

The department also said that Director Charles Ryan did not see video of the incident until May 30th.

Ryan has ordered an immediate review into the incident, adding to a long list of issues that are now under investigation because of ABC15 reports.

Officials from Governor Ducey's office commented on the incident, saying that they've "taken swift action to ensure the safety and security of officers and inmates first and foremost."

"It's clear from this video that this incident was extremely mishandled. The obvious disregard for safety and lackadaisical response is inexcusable. Because of that, effective today, administrators who oversaw Lewis Prison at the time of the incident are no longer with the state," according to officials from Governor Ducey's office.

In April, a KNXV television station investigation exposed leaked surveillance videos proving many cell doors inside the prison don’t properly secure, leading to severe assaults against inmates and officers. At least two inmate deaths are being blamed on the broken doors.

Governor Doug Ducey ordered an outside investigation within a week of the report to examine safety and security issues, as well as the administrative failures that led to the problem.

However, the two retired Arizona Supreme Court chief justices tapped by Ducey to investigate the Department of Corrections have not yet signed a formal contract or finalized the scope of their probe.

The cells inside the Rast Max Unit do lock properly, sources said.

However, many of the cells’ trap doors — used for things like delivering food trays and medication— were broken, allowing inmates to stick their arms out. Experts and insiders said it’s a significant security issue.

Several months ago, KNXV learned that a nurse was grabbed and assaulted by an inmate, who clutched her arm, pulled it in through the trap, and stabbed her.

The trap doors were welded and padlocked in February 2019 — a temporary fix also used on many of the broken cell doors in other areas of Lewis prison.

A department spokesman said a permanent solution for the trap locks is being finalized.