PHOENIX—The Arizona Department of Corrections refused for nearly six months to allow the state’s workplace safety agency to inspect a prison where a female guard was sexually assaulted.
Records obtained by The Associated Press show that the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health only learned about the assault by reading an AP story about the attack nearly a month after it happened. In the ensuing months, records show the Corrections Department repeatedly delayed the workplace safety investigation, despite laws requiring that inspectors have prompt access.
When the inspection of the Yuma prison was finally conducted in November, the room where the attack happened on April 13 was empty of furniture and prison guards had been advised they could refuse to talk to investigators. In the end, the organization determined that no workplace safety rules were broken and issued no citations.
The records show the difficulty the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health encounters when it tries to perform its core job—making sure work sites are safe for employees—inside the state’s prison system. Those difficulties may become more pronounced in all workplaces as a reorganization pushed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey moves to make the agency’s parent department more business-friendly.
The veteran officer was alone in an office with a convicted killer to allow him to phone his lawyer when he jumped over a desk and sexually assaulted her in April. Other guards heard her screams and came to her rescue. The unit where the assault occurred routinely placed guards alone in offices with prisoners for legal calls.
According to a narrative written by the workplace safety investigator, he complained during a July call with a private corrections department lawyer about the excessive time it was taking to get information. Over the next several months, repeated efforts were made to get the corrections department to comply, including issuing a subpoena for records.
Four months after the assault, Corrections Department Inspector General Greg Lauchner sent a letter to the workplace safety agency demanding that it “stand down” and stop investigating the assault. The letter said the sexual assault “was a felony crime, not a workplace accident.”
Corrections Department spokesman Andrew Wilder downplayed the delays.
The Corrections Department and Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health “worked cooperatively through their respective legal counsel and agreed to an inspection of the Yuma Prison four months ago,” Wilder said in a statement Monday. “Sometimes the legal process takes longer than both lawyer and layman would like.”
Division of Occupational Safety and Health spokesman Bob Charles acknowledged the increasing frustration of the inspector, but noted there was a dispute over access because a companion criminal investigation was underway, making the case unique.
The state’s workplace safety agency must follow federal workplace safety rules, which require prompt access to inspectors, even in prisons. Federal inspectors denied entry will sometimes seek a warrant.
The corrections department drew criticism over its safety practices following the Yuma attack and a separate prison rape in January 2014.
In that case, a teacher was left alone in a room full of sex offenders and raped by one of them.
The Arizona Industrial Commission fined the department $14,000 for failing to protect the teacher, but the Corrections Department appealed. In a settlement reached last month, the Industrial Commission waived the fine after prison officials said they had spent $600,000 improving security for workers, including installing cameras, having guards check more often on classroom teachers and issuing radios and pepper spray to civilian staff. The Corrections Department did not admit wrongdoing.
The teacher sued and won a $3 million settlement from the state in December. The guard who was sexually assaulted at the Yuma prison last April has joined seven other correctional officers in a suit against the Corrections Department that alleges understaffing, poor maintenance and other factors put officers at risk statewide.
Scott Zwillinger, an attorney who represented the teacher and who also is involved in the new lawsuit, said he is baffled how the Yuma attack didn’t lead to a citation. He said it is well known in corrections operations that danger increases when staff is alone with dangerous prisoners.
“It’s the same workplace violation again—putting staff alone with inmates without supervision,” he said.