Sun, Feb. 23

Blame game escalates over prison escape

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers traded charges Wednesday of whose administration is to blame for the escape of three dangerous inmates from a private prison and the two subsequent deaths linked to them.

Democrats led the charge, using the three-day special session on altering the Arizona Constitution to insert an anti-union provision to say lawmakers should instead be focusing their attention on how the inmates managed to cut their way through the fence of a Kingman facility. Two have since been captured, but not before the escapees were linked to the killing of an Oklahoma couple in New Mexico.

Reports are the third and a female accomplice may be in Montana or even Arkansas.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said any legislative inquiry is premature. He said the state Department of Corrections is still investigating.

Those calls for patience drew derision from Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix.

"When is the right time?' he asked. "Do we need more dead people?'

Rep. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, said the focus should be on why the convicts, two of whom were serving time on charge of murder, were in a privately run medium security prison. She said answers need to be provided by Gov. Jan Brewer and Charles Ryan, her choice to head the Department of Corrections.

"What we're asking for is leadership,' she said.

"We're asking for a hearing and we're asking for an investigation as to how is it that lifers and violent criminals can be in a medium security prison, in a private prison, with guards who have no weapons,' Aboud continued. "What is this legislature and this governor doing about it.'

Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, said Brewer has been "running around the state' campaigning for office "or trying to jump on TV to talk about other issues.' Brewer has gotten a great deal of national media attention over the state's new immigration law and the legal fight surrounding it.

"People have been kidnapped, people have been killed as the result of this,' Patterson said.

"As far as I can tell, the governor has done nothing to address it,' he continued. "We are in a crisis of failed leadership.'

But Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu, said if Democrats are unhappy about where murderers are being housed they should blame Janet Napolitano, Brewer's predecessor, and Dora Schriro who was Napolitano's corrections chief. He said they were the ones who instituted the current system of how inmates are classified based "on their attitudes, not on their potential for violence.'

"The private prison does not rate the prisoners,' Gould explained. "The Department of Corrections rates those prisoners.'

Gould said, though, there probably were failures in security at the Kingman facility. And he said hearings are necessary.

But he said the reason the murderers were in that Kingman facility in the first place is "bad policy by Gov. Napolitano.'

The Department of Corrections says nearly 2,700 inmates convicted of murder are in medium security prisons. That specifically includes 796 inmates who were sentenced to life behind bars, with no possibility of parole, meaning they have no possibility of ever getting out and cannot be punished further other than losing privileges.

Ryan, however, said there's nothing wrong with that.

"It is consistent correctional practice around the country to house inmates sentenced to life in a medium security prison,' he said.

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman gave a less direct response.

"So far the governor has not announced plans today to radically revamp the objective inmate classification system that was last overhauled in 2005,' he said.

In a report Wednesday, Ryan said the escape remains under investigation.

But he said it appears that Casslyn Welch, the accomplice, approached the outer fence of the prison and tossed them wire cutters which they used to cut through both the inner and outer fences.

Ryan said his office ordered Management and Training Corp., which runs the facility, to make several operational changes. That includes increasing perimeter patrols.

He also said MTC was ordered to have more "controlled movement' of medium security prisoners in the yard. Department of Corrections spokesman Barrett Marson said that already was the policy of his agency for medium security inmates, a policy MTC was supposed to be following in the first place.

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