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Whistleblower who exposed dangerous Arizona prison conditions found dead

A whistleblower who exposed alleged corruption and cell doors that didn’t properly lock inside an Arizona corrections facility has been found dead of an apparent suicide.

Gabriela “Gaby” Contreras, 31, worked at the former Lewis Corrections Department in Buckeye, Arizona. She was found with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head March 8 inside her Goodyear, Arizona, home, according to ABC News.

Ms. Contreras leaked surveillance videos in April 2019 showing how some cell doors inside Lewis prison couldn’t be properly locked, a situation that she and other officers claimed created pandemonium and dangerous working conditions inside the facility.

“Chaotic and dangerous”

“These are top-of-the-line offenders, and they’re running rampant with open doors,” Carlos Garcia, a retired 20-year employee of the Arizona Department of Corrections, told ABC15 Arizona last April after Ms. Contreras released the footage. “How do you like that? They don’t even need a key. They just open their own door.”

The broken cell door locks contributed to what multiple independent prison experts told ABC15 was “one of the most chaotic and dangerous prison environments they’ve ever seen.”

Several violent attacks have occurred within the prison. The videos Ms. Contreras leaked showed six violent assaults that occurred in a six-month period between June and December 2018.

History of violent assaults

On Dec. 30, 2018, officer David Nash was ambushed inside Lewis prison by a group of inmates that had freely opened their cells. Surveillance video shows 15 inmates beating him repeatedly until another officer helped him escape. He told ABC15 he doesn’t remember much about the attack until talking to someone in an ambulance on the way to the ER.

In February 2014, another officer was “savagely” attacked by an inmate who rushed out of a broken door. According to ABC15, a lawsuit later filed in connection to the assault says the officer had to undergo “surgery to repair his labrum and another surgery to implant a titanium plate in order to repair his facial structure.” The suit says that he continued to suffer from physical and emotional injuries.

In May 2019, an officers’ union working to determine how many staff have been assaulted at Lewis Prison because of broken doors found there have been at least 15 in the past six months, if not, “many more,” according to the ABC15 report “Unlocked and Unsafe.”

Inmates of the prison are also at risk. Numerous prisoners have been involved in fights and assaults over the years because they are able to open their cell doors. In June 2018, surveillance footage showed free-roaming prisoners walking in and out of a cell for more than a half-hour. Officers eventually discovered that inmate Andrew McCormick was severely beaten inside the cell. He died of his injuries in a hospital four days later.

The Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) receives $5 million every year to repair cell door locks and make other improvements, but a DOC spokesman told ABC15 that other building renewal projects have taken precedence. When asked to what projects the renewal funds were applied, the DOC didn’t reply, according to ABC15.

Leaked videos lead to sweeping changes

Ms. Contreras chose to publicly disclose her identity after ABC15 aired the surveillance videos she exposed.

“I want them to see me, I did it,” Contreras told ABC15 in a May 2019 interview. “I want (staff) not to be afraid and now is the time that they need to be together and make a change. We need to stand up, put our foot down, and say enough is enough.”

Ms. Contreras’ whistleblower disclosures prompted an immediate investigation by the Governor’s Office and resulted in the repair or replacement of more than 1,000 prison cell doors. Additionally, Arizona’s long-time director, Charles Ryan, retired abruptly in August 2019.

Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, is one of the past and present officers of the Arizona prison system who credits Ms. Contreras for the sweeping changes.

Whistleblower retaliation

“She was very courageous,” said Mr. Garcia. “It was her that put her neck and career on the line.”

Whistleblowers who expose waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption on the job are often subject to retaliation. Reports from last year indicate that Ms. Contreras lost a week of pay and was passed over for a promotion after blowing the whistle on the broken cell doors. Just how much retribution she may have continued to endure on the job remains unclear.

Ms. Contreras told the press last year that she didn’t have any regrets despite the hardships that being a whistleblower brought upon her. According to AZCentral, her conscience wouldn’t allow her to stand by and do nothing.

“I think law enforcement is about having integrity and good ethics,” she said during a May 2019 news conference in Phoenix. “I don’t think (the Department of Corrections could) ever give me enough money to say, ‘Hey, just allow people to get killed every day and just be quiet about it.’ I don’t think that I could ever do that.”

Employment lawyers

Retaliation may occur in the workplace when an employer punishes an employee for an action that is permitted by law but which the employer wants to discourage. For example, an employer may retaliate against an employee who makes harassment or discrimination complaints, who reports fraud or other wrongdoing in the workplace, or who participates in an investigation within the workplace. Some employers also retaliate against employees who report workplace injuries to state or federal authorities.

Lawyers in our Fraud section handle complaints involving employment law, including retaliation. For more information or to discuss a possible claim, contact Larry Golston, Leon Hampton, or Lauren Miles in this section.

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