A prison warden is among a dozen Arizona corrections officials who have been fired, forced to resign, suspended or reprimanded in connection with the death of a non-violent inmate killed after he was put in a cell with a convicted murderer serving a life sentence.
An internal investigation into the killing has concluded that prison guards and other officials made mistakes that led to the prisoner’s death.
The warden of the state prison in Florence, John Ontiveros, was among those disciplined earlier this month and no longer works at the prison, officials with the Arizona Department of Corrections said Tuesday.
Ontiveros had worked for the department from September 1986 until his last day Jan. 16, according to state employment records. Katie Decker, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, declined to say whether he was fired, but added he has applied for his retirement benefits.
The punishments resulted in one official being fired, another demoted, four suspended, three reprimanded and one resignation. Two others are still awaiting disciplinary measures, Decker said.
The disciplinary actions follow a series of reports published by the Tribune looking into the Sept. 7 killing of inmate William Harris.
Harris, who was serving a three-year sentence for a drug charge, was found
on the ground with a nine-inch metal shank sticking out of his chest after he was moved into a cell with Michael Gaston, who was serving a life sentence for killing a man over a car loan.
Harris had resisted moving into the cell because he feared for his life, according to the report.
After moving him, a guard later noticed the two inmates shaking hands and believed they would get along, the report stated.
But less than two hours later, Harris’ bloody body was found with a blanket wrapped around his head.
He was flown to a Valley hospital where he was pronounced dead.
It took three months and an investigation by the Tribune before the department wrapped up its internal criminal investigation and turned it over to the Pinal County Attorney’s office.
Gaston was eventually charged with first-degree murder. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
At the time of the killing, Gaston was attempting to join the Aryan Brotherhood, a white-supremacist prison gang, according to the report. An inspection of his cell found a hand-written statement on the wall quoting Adolf Hitler.
It’s also believed that Harris was wrongly labeled a child molester by Jonna Zeger, a prison guard who has since quit the department. Zeger, who was unavailable for comment, told the Tribune last month about that killing and how she was treated had prompted her to quit.
Harris’ death raised concerns among lawmakers regarding the housing and classification of inmates and why it took so long to notify the public.
The internal investigation found no fault with department policies or administrative procedures.
Instead, investigators determined that mistakes made by prison guards led to Harris’ death, the report stated.
“The main thing is that the Department of Corrections had the proper policies and procedures in place. What we ran into was what you could call operator error and that the employees were not following procedure,” Decker said Tuesday afternoon. “When we went back and looked at it, all the different theories were based on employee error.”
As a result, Decker said, the department has made sweeping changes that call for better testing and training of staff and better communication to inform the public regarding significant incidents.
The report of the investigation was released nearly three weeks after the department turned over the findings to Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office for her inspection. During that time, the corrections department and the governor’s officials would not release details of the report.
Napolitano commented on the results in a statement Tuesday: “I am satisfied with the report, and I believe the disciplinary action taken by Director (Doro) Schriro is appropriate. Through this investigation, the director has identified serious procedural issues and has taken serious corrective action.”
Schriro was unavailable for an interview with the Tribune on Tuesday.
However, she appeared at a hearing Tuesday with the Senate Appropriations Committee where she faced tough questioning from state lawmakers.
Sen. Karen Johnson, RMesa, told Schriro: “I have concerns that our prisoners are not being supervised as well as they should be. I would hope that will be looked into closely.”
Schriro assured Johnson that it was.
Among the projects she asked the Legislature to fund was a $10 million plan to provide housing for 3,000 additional inmates.