A prisoner with no record of violence was beaten and stabbed to death after Arizona Department of Corrections officials placed him in a cell with a killer serving a life sentence. William Harris, 45, who was serving 3 1/2 years at the state prison in Florence, was stabbed three times, hit repeatedly on the head and choked, according to a Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s report.
The weapon, known as a shank, was 9 inches long and still sticking out of Harris’ lower chest when his body arrived at the medical examiner’s office, according to the document.
Harris’ cellmate, whose name is being withheld, is considered the prime suspect. In addition, investigators are questioning two prison employees about their roles in the incident.
Sources with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition their names not be released, said Harris was killed within 24 hours of being put in his new cell.
Department of Corrections officials did not release information about the incident to the public in the months following Harris’ death.
In fact, Harris was listed on the department’s Web site as being released from custody on Sept. 7 — the day he was killed. And officials would not confirm the killing until presented with the medical examiner’s report.
Dora Schriro, director of the department, rejected the notion that her office has been silent, saying officials have been in contact with numerous state and county agencies.
She said, for instance, that she contacted Dennis Burke, Gov. Janet Napolitano’s cochief of staff the night Harris was killed.
“I either left him a voice message or I spoke to him directly. I can’t remember,” Schriro said Wednesday afternoon.
But officials with Napolitano’s office would not confirm that late Wednesday. Napolitano, who appointed Schriro in 2003, said earlier this week she was not aware of the incident.
Schriro said the department also contacted Harris’ next of kin, who live out of state. Their names also were withheld and the Tribune could not reach them for comment.
Chuck Teegarden, a spokesman for the Pinal County Attorney’s Office, said he hadn’t been told about the killing and formal charges have not been filed. Any charges that result would come out of Pinal County because the crime was committed there.
Corrections officials said they will turn the case over to prosecutors by the end of the week and were not planning to file charges until the state’s investigation ends. They were still waiting for results of lab tests from the state Department of Public Safety, officials said.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers were highly critical of the department’s handling of the case.
Rep. Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, who will be chairman of the House Government Committee in the upcoming Legislature, said the Corrections Department should have been more open and forthcoming.
“This man was not sentenced to death, and in a sense that’s what’s happened,” he said.
Other lawmakers, such as Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, who was recently appointed majority whip, questioned why lawmakers and the public were not told of the killing earlier.
“I think lawmakers should have known about this, and I think the public should have known about this,” he said.
Although many details of the investigation have not been released, Katie Decker, a spokeswoman for the department confirmed the two prisoners were cellmates. She also confirmed Harris’ cellmate was convicted of murder and serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.
Schriro and Decker said investigators were questioning two prison employees about their roles in the incident. But they were not specific about what that meant.
Since Harris, who has no known record of violence, was placed in a cell with a convicted murderer, questions have been raised regarding how the department places prisoners together.
“I have directed Dora Schriro, Corrections Director, to expedite review of this case and the department’s policies and procedures related to the pairing of inmates,” Napolitano said in a statement. “If current policies or procedures were violated, appropriate action needs to be taken.”
Inmates in Arizona prisons are paired based on their security risks, according to corrections officials. Only inmates with the same rating share cells because prison officials don’t want different classifications mixing.
By putting two high-risk prisoners together it “levels the playing field,” Decker said.
Harris was convicted on drug charges and was serving his third prison term. Decker said he was considered a high-risk prisoner because he violated prison rules.
Those violations included possession of narcotics, disobeying the orders of prison officers and other minor infractions during his three prison terms, according to public records.
Harris, who was living in the Valley, was first admitted into the state prison system in 2002 on drug-related charges, according to court records and corrections officials. He was released in 2003 but returned later that year after being arrested again on drug charges.
After being released in May 2005, Harris was sent back to prison for the third time on drug charges later that year.
Schriro said the policy of how to match inmates would be reviewed as soon as the investigation was complete. And she plans to meet with Napolitano on Friday to discuss the issue.
Donna Leone Hamm, a prisonrights activist who runs Middle Ground Prison Reform Inc., criticized the Department of Corrections for not doing enough to protect Harris.
“They have a duty and an obligation to make sure he was placed with someone with the same custody level,” she said. Hamm is married to James Hamm, a convicted killer who spent 18 years in Arizona prison and later earned a law degree in 1997 from Arizona State University.
She also attributed the incident to a bed shortage. The whole thing could have been avoided, she said, if there had been more cells and beds.