KOLD INVESTIGATES: Understaffed prisons in Arizona leave system at risk

Updated: Aug. 26, 2019 at 10:26 PM MST
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series examining the state of prisons in Arizona. You can read the other stories HERE and HERE.

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - “I played music professionally for a number of years,” said John Fabricius II, as he strummed an acoustic guitar. “It certainly puts you in situations where you have to make some life choices about how you are going to live your life and I didn’t always make some of those well.”

Fabricius said he started using his using his talent with computers to scam others.

“Some people I had fallen in with wanted to defraud a particular company," he said. “I was good at it and it just grew, grew and grew."

That is what led to his first conviction, check fraud.

“Then I went to prison and didn’t learn anything for that experience at all," Fabricius said.

More white-collar crimes landed him behind bars again, this time the sentence was steep -- 16 1/2 years. Fabricious spent time in prisons across the state. He said no matter where he went, he saw the same troubling trend.

“As long as I can remember in the Department of Corrections, there was always staffing issues," Fabricius said. “I never saw the attrition rate below 70 percent. How can a place survive like that?”

In the past eight years, the officer vacancy rate within the Arizona Department of Corrections rose from just one percent up to 19 percent. If no changes are made, that rate is expected to reach 25 percent by 2021.

“If you allow all these inmates to run around free in a pod, people can be killed," said Arizona Correctional Sergeant Gabriela Contreras.

She blew the whistle on malfunctioning and tampered door locks at Arizona’s Lewis Prison in Buckeye, which allowed inmates to get out of their cells.

An independent report found the prison was designed for 30 correctional officers in each unit, but the warden cut staffing to 21. Officers said with a shortage in staff, there was not enough time to carefully inspect each door.

KOLD News 13 traveled to Phoenix to meet with State Representative Walter Blackman, Chairman of a committee dedicated to making changes in the way Arizona handles incarceration.

When asked about under-staffing, which has been reported nationwide, Blackman said the issue is real.

“It is a real problem," he said. "When we are looking at the ratios of guard or officer to inmate, are we in line with the rest of the country?”

Blackman said in order to have more staff, the department needs more money, but the Arizona Department of Corrections is already operating on a budget that exceeds $1 billion.

Blackman is calling for a deep dive audit of the ADC.

“Right now, we are paying $25,000 per inmate to house, feed and bed. Is it the money? Or is it the management of the money?" Blackman asked.

The staffing shortage goes beyond correctional officers.

A federal class action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections’ medical, mental health and dental care system alleged a severe shortage of nurses to provide inmate care.

According to court documents, a judge fined the ADC more than $1 million for continued non-compliance with court-ordered prison health care standards.

ADC is appealing that ruling.

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.