Arizona Department Of Corrections Whistleblower Calls For Change Of Leadership

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 7:02am
Updated: Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 8:28am

Gabriela Contreras
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Gabriela Contreras spoke publicly for the first time on May 21, 2019, after leaking footage that triggered an investigation into the Arizona Department of Corrections.

When asked why she came forward, despite threats of retaliation and intimidation from her superiors, Gabriela Contreras said she had no choice.

“I think law enforcement is about having integrity and good ethics,” Contreras said. “I don’t think they could ever give me enough money to allow people to get killed every day and just be quiet about it. I don’t think that I could ever do that.”

Contreras spoke to the press Tuesday in her first public appearance after leaking footage to ABC15 that would lead Gov. Doug Ducey to launch an investigation of the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC).

The security camera videos showed inmates were able to open their cells and attack a correctional officer. Contreras, a sergeant at the time, said she was fed up working in such dangerous conditions.

“I was just tired of my staff getting hurt and assaulted and our administration not taking over and doing something about it,” she said.

Contreras was demoted to correctional officer after leaking footage. She says she followed procedures, filing reports of safety deficiencies daily for months starting in November, but her superiors took no action.

“Our captains would have a count of them and they just sent them up the chain,” she said. “On top of that, I had conversations with my supervisors, my deputy wardens, my captain in regards to the security issues at our unit. And nothing was done. It was still very unsafe for everybody.”

Contreras said she doubts the integrity of the governor’s investigation. In a previously released letter to the governor, Contreras accused a deputy warden at the Lewis Prison in Buckeye of providing false information to investigators.

"I believe the Deputy Warden is intentionally minimizing the significant Morey issues, presenting you with false and/or misleading information, and falsifying public records," Contreras wrote to the governor.

Contreras said someone from the governor’s office contacted her on Monday to say they had received her letter. The report is expected to be finished later this summer.

In addition to faulty locks and doors, Contreras called attention to staffing problems at ADC. “They need to pay these officers more money and get our numbers up higher.”

Contreras said a staffing shortage at the Lewis prison has resulted in her superiors directing staff to ignore when an Incident Command System alert is issued, which is supposed to trigger an emergency response from all available staff.

“Our administration was basically like, ‘OK, we don’t want all of our resources to respond to these ICSs, we want you guys to continue your feeding, your recreation, we’ll deal with them later,’” Contreras said.

As a result, Contreras says staff members have given up calling for an ICS because “they knew nothing was going to happen.”

“It’s very important,” Contreras said. “It’s something that is abnormal and needs to be fixed immediately. You can have people killed.”

When asked if she had confidence in the current leadership at the Department of Corrections, Contreras did not mince words.

“I think they need to get rid of everybody from the top down,” she said. “They need a whole new administration.”

Contreras said the support she had received from her colleagues at the prison had been “amazing.”

“They were all very grateful, very thankful for what I did, coming out and exposing this huge security issue,” Contreras said. “So I’m very pleased I have the support of the security staff.

Contreras had a message for her fellow ADC employees who are thinking of coming forward with information about wrongdoing and security issues.

“I would say that they need to have courage. It’s not going to be an easy ride, of course. It comes with a lot of stress. But I think it would be more stressful to live with lives on your conscience than it would to just speak up and try to protect some people.”