Gas Line Eruption Causes $2M Headache For Arizona Department Of Corrections

By Jimmy Jenkins, Mark Brodie
Published: Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 8:02am
Updated: Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 1:03pm

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Workers replace a three-mile-long natural gas pipeline
Arizona Department Of Corrections
Workers replace a three-mile-long natural gas pipeline at the state prison in Winslow in 2018.

The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) says it discovered a natural-gas pipeline leak at the Winslow prison in November.

“This gas line was installed 37 years ago,” ADC Director Charles Ryan said. “How do I know? I was the warden there 37 years ago.”

Ryan told the Joint Committee on Capital Review at the statehouse on Tuesday that the gas line had erupted, requiring a complete replacement at a cost of $1.5 million. ADC believes it will take half a year to replace the three-mile-long pipe.

The committee previously granted ADC permission to move forward on the project in November without review because it was determined to be an emergency.

Ryan said the cost to replace the pipe would come from money that the Legislature had already appropriated for other capital projects.

During construction, Ryan said inmates at the facility have been moved to other locations.

Ryan said 200 minimum-security inmates would remain at Winslow “because of IGA labor agreements, and we needed a labor force to work on the prison campus itself.”

Ryan said the process has been “quite an undertaking.”

“We’ve had to bring in portable generators, portable kitchens, portable showers,” Ryan said. “We’ve installed portable space heaters in offices and thus far we have been able to restore enough gas to heat all the cell blocks in the Kaibab unit.”

The director said he believed the kitchens were close to coming back online as well.

In the meantime, Ryan is proposing a minimum-security unit at the Douglas prison be upgraded to medium security, by adding a new fence that would cost $500,000. The money for this project would also come from funds that have already been allocated to ADC for capital projects.

The director told the committee ADC does not currently have a sufficient number of medium-security beds.

“And therefore I ask for your approval to go ahead and re-strengthen the fence, add a footer and then we will turn this minimum-security unit into a medium-custody facility,” he said.

ADC would “reactivate” a 240-bed minimum-security unit at the Douglas prison that Ryan said had been “mothballed for a number of months because we’ve not had the need for the minimum-security beds.”

Ryan said the change was already in longer-term plans for ADC, “but frankly because of what happened at Winslow, it’s forced us to accelerate this option.”

State Sen. John Kavanagh said he had Joint Legislative Budget Committee staff look into the availability of private prison beds and they reported an availability for 400 inmates.

“It seems that using current private prisons … at least for the time being, we could take care of these prisoners,” Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh cited a prison reform movement he believed was coming in the upcoming legislative session as a reason to not fund the fence.

“I do think there are going to be some reductions in the prison population because some of the reforms seem reasonable,” Kavanagh said.

Speaking to Ryan, Kavanagh said there had also been a “big push for money for corrections for your salaries.”

“I think we should just put this off and see what happens,” Kavanagh suggested to Ryan. “I’ve always been supportive of the capital projects you’ve put forward because I don’t like to second guess. But don’t second guess the Legislature. I think there’s going to be some reform that’s going to reduce your population.”

Kavanagh said he would “hate to turn around and spend a half-million dollars that we could have spent on other things like salary increases only to discover in June that we’re going to be shutting down this unit or more.”

Ryan emphasized his preference to make the change at the existing prison, saying he had not been approached by anyone from the private prisons. Kavanagh, a longtime supporter of prison privatization, said he had been approached by the industry.

“I heard concern from some people from private prisons,” Kavanagh said, “that they’ve got empty beds that they’d like to see filled instead of us spending this money.”

Ryan said managing an inmate population was a complex task requiring several strategies.

“It’s not always just about the numbers going up or down,” Ryan said. “It has to do with the classification and the different types of inmates in those custody levels. From general population to protected custody to security threat groups, to sex offenders - not all inmates can live together.”

Jacob Gable, planning budget and research administrator for ADC, said it would take about five weeks to two months to complete the fence once the agency received the go-ahead.

The committee ultimately voted to approve the request, with Kavanagh voting no.

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