Disturbance at Arizona women’s prison complex in Goodyear; incident tied to heat complaints, advocate says

Arizona prison officials said Sunday they are investigating the causes and consequences of a disturbance that broke out in a section of Perryville women’s prison in Goodyear on Friday.

At least four women inside the prison, as well as civil rights advocates on their behalf, said in emails and interviews that a violent disturbance unfolded after women complained about sweltering temperatures inside their cells.

Initial, unconfirmed reports from those sources suggested prison authorities used pepper spray to quell the situation, which, they said, involved fires and a lockdown.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry confirmed there was a disturbance, but disputed that account, saying there were no injuries and heat concerns did not prompt the incident.

“Yesterday evening, an incident occurred at the Lumley Unit, a close custody housing unit at ASPC Perryville, in which a group of approximately 50 women refused to return to their cells at yard closure time despite staff’s attempts to communicate with them. After additional staff responded, the women eventually complied and returned to their housing area as directed,” a prison system spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Saturday.

The disruption came after months of complaints about cooling failures at Perryville.

An organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union, Kara Williams, started getting emails about heat complaints from women in the prison that the Lumley unit had been put on lockdown after a fight had broken out and that temperatures inside the cells were over 90 degrees.

Some women asked to have temperatures checked in their cells, claiming they should not be forced into them when temperatures are excessive, but correction officers refused, according to emails from women detained.

Lola N’sangou, executive director at Mass Liberation AZ, also received phone calls and emails from women in the unit and their families.

N’sangou, who spent two years detained at Lumley, explained that women had been placed back in their cells after the fight, but it was when correction officers wanted to close their doors that women began to protest.

That led to one woman being pepper-sprayed and left in a seizure, as one woman detained in Perryville explained in her email.

But Judy Keane, a spokesperson for the prison system, on Sunday denied that there were any injuries sustained by staff or incarcerated women.

After the standoff and pepper spraying, some women began breaking things and lighting trash cans on fire, which led to 30-40 women being “fogged” with tear gas and handcuffed, according to emails from women detained.

Women in the emails said that a correctional officer started yelling at the women, which escalated their reaction.

Keane declined to confirm whether the incident stemmed from heat concerns or whether any damage had been done to prison property, citing that the “incident is under investigation, therefore the ADCRR is unable to provide further information.”

N’sangou explained that Arizona’s corrections department has conducted studies showing how heat leads to fights and had been warned for months about the heat issues at the prison.

They should have evacuated those women into cooler cells until cooling system issues at Lumley were fixed, she said.

“In order for them to avoid any more fallout for the fact that they’re putting these people whose unbelievably inhumane heat conditions they need to evacuate those rooms until they can install adequate air conditioning,” N’sangou said.

According to prison data as of Friday night, 3,141 women were housed at Perryville prison, including convicted murderer Jodi Arias. There are 254 women inside the high-security Lumley Unit.

By lunchtime Saturday, all women had been returned to the same cells. Williams, who has been formerly incarcerated in Arizona state prisons, said temperatures in the cells commonly reach the mid to high 90s in the summer.

The Corrections Department downplayed the concern.

“The incident was not related to any heat concerns and ASPC Perryville is operating under normal conditions today,” the department’s spokesperson wrote.

The disturbance comes after reports of cooling system failures plaguing the prison in July. Arizona’s prison director, Ryan Thornell, called the failures “blips” that “might happen for an hour” in an interview with 12 News last month.

Issues with cooling have come up yearly in states in the South and Southwest, according to ACLU attorney Corene Kendrick.

“It’s something that we do see across the country, where as part of this punitive mentality that officials don’t want to put any sort of cooling system in prisons and jails because they say that it’s some sort of luxury,” she said.

She explained that units like Lumley don’t have air conditioning installed, which is dangerous as temperatures continue to rise.

The cells at Lumley open up right to the desert, and they use swamp coolers to ventilate the cells, she added.

These conditions can be especially dangerous for those on medication.

“In Arizona, in a separate case that the ACLU brought against Maricopa County Jail, the court also issued an order telling Maricopa County jail when Sheriff Joe Arpaio ran it, that they had to move people on psych meds to cooler areas,” she said.

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Kendrick represents plaintiffs in the suit against the Corrections Department for issues with providing care for the people detained in prison. The court filed a permanent injunction in April and Perryville houses a piloting unit where court monitors are studying the changes mandated by the court.

The state prison agency said it triggered its Excessive Heat Safety and Relief Strategy Plan at the Perryville complex in response to the extreme temperature warnings. It “allows for individual cell doors to remain open at affected complexes” to relieve the effects of high outdoor temperatures. “At any time, the doors may be secured … to ensure safety and security are maintained,” the prison system spokesperson added.

Arizona’s prison system is not immune to violence, although Williams and others familiar with Perryville say violence like that reported on Friday is unheard of there. Williams explained that protests at women’s prisons are rare, especially ones that end with pepper spray and seizures. 

The most recent outbreak in a men’s unit was in 2020 in the Eyman prison in Florence, in which hundreds of detained people were involved in a riot. No injuries were reported. In 2018, violence broke out in a Yuma prison. A riot there injured 37 people and left one prisoner dead. In 2015, a three-day riot in Kingman sent 13 people to the hospital and resulted in the prison system relocating 1,000 people housed there. In 2004, the Lewis prison in Buckeye was the scene of what was at the time described as the longest prison standoff in U.S. history. The two-week ordeal began when two detained people took two guards hostage.

This is a developing story. Return to azcentral.com for updates.

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