Arizona prisons director talks heat, ‘unprecedented’ suicides

Erica Stapleton
18 Min Read

Arizona prisons Director Ryan Thornell answers questions about problems with the prison system, including health care and extreme heat.

PHOENIX — Arizona prisons Director Ryan Thornell has faced no shortage of challenges in his first year on the job, from extreme heat and a years-long health care lawsuit to cultural shifts within the corrections system.  Still, lawmakers, advocates and even Gov. Katie Hobbs call him the right person for the job.  

This week, he sat down with 12News investigative journalist Erica Stapleton to answer questions about problems with the prison system and the department’s plans going forward.  Here are the biggest takeaways from the interview:

Editor’s note: This report includes details about suicides in prison. If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988.

Air conditioning replacing swamp coolers at Perryville women’s prison

Summer 2024 will be different.  That’s what Thornell said about mitigating and handling extreme heat at prisons state-wide.  Last summer, the I-Team exposed triple-digit temperatures inside some of the cells at Perryville women’s prison in Goodyear, the highest in July, hitting 109 degrees. Kingman and Lewis prisons had cells also hit triple digits, according to the department’s own records.

RELATED: ‘They’re allowing people to suffer’: Cells reached 100+ degrees on multiple days in July at Perryville prison

“I wasn’t surprised compared to the outdoor temperature,” Thornell said, noting July’s record heatwave in Arizona was unprecedented.  “I think what I was more surprised by were the number of cells that were impacted as extremely as they were.”

After the I-Team initially reported on concerns from incarcerated women and their loved ones in mid-July, Thornell visited Perryville himself and quickly called for changes, including misters, free ice and increased access to air-conditioned spaces. 

“It’s unacceptable in terms of having a living environment that has a temperature that high,” Thornell said. “I felt it myself.”

He wants to continue enhancing relief this summer and his team said their mitigation plan will be rolled out in the coming weeks.  A project is also underway to upgrade swamp coolers at Perryville to air conditioners. 

“It’s in process right now,” he said. “If you drive by, you can see ventilation going up on the external walls. You can see ventilation going into individual cells, which is far ahead of the timeline that we had last year. And so I’m hopeful. I know we’re going to have air conditioning in cells this summer that didn’t have it last year.” 

RELATED: Hospitalizations and HVAC repairs: The cost of extreme heat in Arizona’s women’s prison

Despite changes in the works, the I-Team found last summer’s heat still took a toll.

In July 2023, records revealed incarcerated women and at least one staff member at Perryville were hospitalized for heat-related symptoms. Sometimes staff were sent home.

“Is mitigation really working if those are the outcomes?” Stapleton asked.

“Absolutely, it’s working,” Thornell responded. “We did have a few incidents – one or two different complexes – where staff reported some heat related symptoms and were absolutely sent off site for evaluation, which is the protocol I want followed.”

Changes to heat monitoring 

The I-Team also uncovered inconsistencies in temperature records.  For example, no prison kept records the same way and some did not record indoor temperatures.

“We’ve already addressed those issues as we come into this heat season,” Thornell said. “To where we have standardized forms, as well as standardized training that’s being completed as we speak.”

The I-Team also pointed out a pattern on the temperature logs at the prison in Kingman and sent the records to the corrections media team multiple times requesting comments before publishing a follow-up to a January 2024 investigation. Thornell said he hadn’t seen the documents and couldn’t comment on them specifically.

“Were there ever any concerns that some of them could have been falsified?” Stapleton asked.

“I didn’t see any concerns last summer about falsified logs based upon what I saw firsthand,” Thornell said. “I certainly know that there were inconsistencies in the forms used, as I mentioned, but our focus now is going forward.”

“I think this is absolutely helpful to have you bring this forward,” he added. “And I think your reporting exposed a voice for people that were, maybe still are, inside Perryville and some of their concerned family members. And so I always welcome that sort of communication.”

Prison suicides causing concern

There have been at least seven prison suicides in the past 120 days at facilities across the state.

In one case, records say 23-year-old Joshua Fox hung himself in his cell right before Christmas, less than two days after he arrived at the prison in Phoenix. Records from the medical examiner show another inmate was inside the cell, but was sleeping when it happened.

RELATED: ‘We could not get him help’: Mother demands change in Arizona’s mental health care system after son dies by suicide in prison

Fox’s mother Crystal Fox is now fighting at the legislature for better care when it comes to people with serious mental illnesses, like her son had.

“The whole mental health system failed me,” Crystal Fox said earlier this year.

“The stretch of suicides we’ve had is certainly unprecedented,” Thornell said when asked about the recent deaths.  “And I hate to see any single loss of life.” 

“Do you think the department should be responsible if someone takes their own life in prison?” Stapleton asked.

“I think that the department is responsible for that,” Thornell said. “And there’s a whole host of different ways that we’re responsible. And we conduct a very thorough investigation in every one of those.”

“Everyone has different factors and we figure out to the extent we can, what those factors are,” Thornell continued. “Then there’s accountability, responsibility, based upon all of that.” 

Failures in mental health care are some one of the many areas where the department is falling short, according to a yearslong lawsuit over inadequate health care in Arizona prisons.

Thornell said part of his goal is to not just enhance care but shift the culture when it comes to mental health care.  

“One of our significant pushes right now is to de-stigmatize that and to really give staff and the population the tools to really work through that,” he said. “The second thing is improving how we engage with the population. Since I came in last January, corrections historically has been about punishment, control, and really this lockdown sort of attitude. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t work to achieve the outcomes we want.”

Struggling to comply with court-ordered changes to health care

The federal lawsuit over inadequate prison health care has been ongoing for more than a decade and has spanned three state prison directors and four health care companies.

The original class-action lawsuit filed in March 2012 focused on more than a dozen inmates who detailed problems with medical, mental and dental health care; some inmates alleged they were not getting care or treatment quickly enough. They’re represented by organizations like the ACLU and Arizona Center for Disability Law, among other plaintiffs.

In 2022, Judge Roslyn Silver ruled that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry was violating inmates’ rights and in 2023, she ordered the department to comply with more than 180 provisions she outlined that would improve health care.  

A court filing last week indicated the department was only complying with five of the provisions. But Thornell, who inherited the lawsuit when he took the job in January 2023, said the department’s continued to make progress, like changes to maximum custody and restrictive housing.

“The progress is there,” he said. “There’s things that are happening. So to say that it’s a failure or [that] progress is lacking, I think, is outdated information.”

One of the biggest issues is staffing. Thornell said they’ve made improvements to custody staffing, like corrections officers, and have reduced the turnover since he took the helm.  

RELATED: ‘Problem with this case is staffing’: Judge gives Arizona prison system more time to comply with federal lawsuit

But health care jobs are harder to hire.  Court monitors who are evaluating the department in the lawsuit all stated in court that the staffing shortage is a major problem that led to bad outcomes in care, like problems with suicide watch, telehealth and timely access to providers and appointments.  Thornell said the problem goes beyond corrections.

“As we look ahead over the next year or two, the number of health care staff that the state needs is going up significantly and we don’t have the people to fill all of those needs,” he said.

The health care hiring needs to come from NaphCare, the corrections department’s contracted provider.

“Are they the right partnership right now for the department?” asked Stapleton.

“Well, when I say ‘we,’ I mean NaphCare,” Thornell said. “They’re there with us in this.”

In court last week, Judge Silver asked Thornell whether the department was doing enough to get NaphCare to fulfill its contract regarding staffing. The department’s attorney said it started withholding contract money from NaphCare, $10M so far, to get the company to bring in enough qualified staff.

“If we’re going to get a different result, if we’re going to expect something different from our partners, we need to hold them accountable to that,” Thornell said. “But at the same time, we have to support them to get there.”

A spokesperson for NaphCare sent a statement from CEO Brad McClane Thursday afternoon that read, in part, “NaphCare inherited a difficult situation and has been working tirelessly with new ADCRR leadership to find solutions.”

The company outlined staffing improvements, like increasing staff nearly 30% since the company started working with the department less than two years ago and are continuing to hire staff.  NaphCare filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit last week.

NaphCare’s full statement is at the bottom of this article.

Preventing homelessness upon reentry

As the state deals with a homelessness crisis, several service providers told the I-Team that many people who wind up on the streets or try to find shelter are coming directly from prison.

“That’s absolutely not what we want reentry to be,” Thornell said. “What we’ve been doing over the last year is building better relationships with the community resources that are available, the shelter resources that are available, and really how we have those handoffs made.” 

RELATED: ‘They’re preying on those individuals’: Phoenix PD talks about how things got so bad in ‘The Zone’

He details that the department has held reentry and housing fairs and is working to connect people with the right resources or a plan before they’re released to the community.  

“I don’t want to release anybody into the community homeless,” Thornell said. “I understand it’s going to be dependent on what’s available, but we have to do everything we can to make sure we provide those resources in advance. 

“We have a long way to go,” he added. “It’s been a year to tackle some of these challenging issues that you bring up that some agencies don’t have to deal with over 20-30 year stretches. But I think when you look back over the last year on things like reentry and some of these other topics we’ve talked about, we’ve made considerable progress. And I think people can expect, and should expect that that’s what we’re going to continue to do going forward.”

Full statement from NaphCare CEO Brad McLane:

NaphCare is proud of the tremendous progress we have made in advancing the quality of healthcare within Arizona’s prisons in only 17 months. Unfortunately, the Court has not been fully informed of our progress. Therefore, NaphCare has asked the Court to allow us to intervene as a defendant in order to share the significant improvements made in staffing and quality of care. We hope the Court grants us that opportunity soon.

NaphCare inherited a difficult situation and has been working tirelessly with new ADCRR leadership to find solutions. We have made and continue to make extraordinary progress. 

Regarding Staffing Improvements: 

  • Since taking over the health services contract in October 2022, NaphCare has rapidly increased healthcare staffing levels in prisons across the state.
  • NaphCare has increased staff levels from approximately 1,400 to 1,800 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) – a nearly 30% increase in total staff.
  • As of March 2024, NaphCare has successfully filled more than 90% of available positions. This includes new staff that have been hired as recently as this week and will soon start work. 

For tips on this or any other story, contact the I-Team at [email protected] 

More on prison heat from the I-Team

RELATED: ‘Concrete coffins’: Cooling systems fail at Perryville prison in Goodyear amid record heat wave

RELATED: Arizona Corrections Director responds to heat concerns at Perryville prison

RELATED: ‘Life-threatening’: Families worried their loved ones will die in Perryville prison over extreme heat

RELATED: Perryville’s warden steps down amid extreme heat problems at the prison

RELATED: Inmates offered free ice amid concerns over ‘unbearable’ heat in cells at Perryville prison

RELATED: I-Team: Records show 100+ degree temperatures in cells at Perryville women’s prison

RELATED: Arizona governor talks about lack of air conditioning at Perryville prison as former inmate speaks out for those in the facility

RELATED: ‘They’re allowing people to suffer’: Cells reached 100+ degrees on multiple days in July at Perryville prison

RELATED: Arizona prisons ending relief measures after record-high heat wave

RELATED: Hospitalizations and HVAC repairs: The cost of extreme heat in Arizona’s women’s prison

Full interview: 


Learn more about other 12News investigations by subscribing to the 12News YouTube channel and watching our I-Team playlist.

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Erica Stapleton ,
KPNX Vivrr Local Feed: investigations , 2024-03-22 05:28:29
Categories: i-team,news,investigations,arizona,local,home

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