To many people, news of an attempted prison escape is scary, but something pretty far removed from their normal scope. Most people have no real conception of exactly where the prisons in their state are, and what the chances are of an inmate succeeding at an escape. It is hard to put in context what most on the outside will never understand: no prison is 100% secure. But I know this. And yesterday’s events at the Arizona State Prison Complex Tucson, my former place of employment, speak to this. And yet, they speak to the security, as well.
At approximately 10:30 pm Wednesday night, I received a call from a former work buddy at the prison. I will not name him, but he works in the capacity of a Correctional Officer at a unit inside the complex. My friend excitedly told me that he had just come off his shift, and that about an hour and a half earlier, he heard an ICS go out about a perimeter alarm at Cimarron Unit. ICS refers to the Incident Command System, called into play whenever something out of the ordinary happens at the prison. Depending on the nature of the issue, or until it can be determined, an ICS affects a general lock-down of the yard, special inmate counts are often performed and perimeter checks are done.
It turns out that the perimeter alarm had indeed been triggered; and though this happens sometimes, this time it was not tripped by the wind or an animal. There was an actual escape attempt, and they still hadn’t found the inmates in question by the time my friend left his post. Inmates John Wells and Joshua Aston had attempted the unimaginable: breaking out of a state prison surrounded by deadly razor wire, armed Correctional Officers and layers of security. But would they make it?
No. The men, who major news media are incorrectly reporting somehow escaped their cells and made it out of the housing building itself, were spotted hiding in a drainage ditch by Tucson Police helicopters immediately before 3:00 am, the time another close friend, and employee at the prison, was scheduled to report for his shift. My friend states that upon arrival at the Wilmot Rd prison at about 3:00 am, he encountered roadblocks and observed police and helicopters circling. The inmates had been caught at this time, and he was quickly given the scoop that my previously mentioned friend coming off his shift did not yet know.
Apparently, the inmates hadn’t “escaped” their cell, at all. They were allegedly out on trash duty, which is an activity often not as closely monitored as you would think, and never returned to rack in (go back to their cells). This happened at the Cimarron Unit, which is ironically the only unit on complex with a high-rise gun tower to help scan the perimeter and provide the utmost security. However, this tower is not in use, and has not been for quite some time. The two men apparently shared the same cell, but I am unable to confirm that at this time.
From what my friend reporting for duty learned of the incident was that both men were working as trash porters. I can confirm through reviewing the ADC Inmate Database records for Joshua Aston, 22, ADC# 217096, that as of April 24th 2009, he has indeed worked on the litter control work crew. A search of both ADC records as well as the Maryland Inmate Search turned up no information on John Wells, reportedly transferred to ASPC Tucson over a decade ago from a Maryland prison and said to be in his forties. It is said Wells was convicted of armed robberies and previous escape attempts. In fact, it appears this may have been his fourth escape attempt. This information was gleaned from major and local news media reports, including this one from the Tucson Citizen and reports in the Arizona Daily Star’s online edition, here..
From a report by Tucson’s ABC affiliate News 15, linked here, it appears both men are serving life sentences. Joshua Aston’s crimes are widely known in AZ, and his life sentence can be confirmed by viewing the ADC Inmate Database and searching his name. Joshua Aston was convicted in 2007 of murder, and was serving his time on a unit whose security level was only one step below Maximum Security. Now, both men have been transferred to the Special Management Unit at Eyman Prison Complex in Florence, AZ.
At a “closed custody” yard, or what is known as a level four yard, inmates have a significant security presence, but also freedoms such as walking freely to communal chow, being outdoors, group recreation, phone calls, work programs, religious services, regular showers and education. Visitation is held in a dedicated space, and inmates may hug and kiss hello briefly when loved one’s arrive and before they depart. Inmates and visitors may even walk around and hold hands.
At their new home, a “maximum” security unit, a level five (the highest), the intended escapees will enjoy the luxury of a single cell, a privilege most in General Population will never experience. What they may enjoy less, however, are their 24-hour per-day lock-downs three to four days a week, thrice weekly showers, recreation time alone in a concrete cage with a steel-grated roof, being handcuffed everywhere they go and no physical contact visits of any kind. When friends and family come to visit at SMU I or II, they will visit through glass. They will speak by telephone. If Joshua Aston or John Wells were previously lucky enough to have friends or family come and visit them, they have now stripped themselves, and their families, of even this small comfort.
Investigations are ongoing to try to determine what exactly went wrong. There are speculations already, but I won’t elaborate because it is merely that: speculation. I saw many lapses in security during my time working at ASPC Tucson, and several horrible and “unsafe” things took place. But the fact that these men never breached the perimeter shows that security does work. The razor wire, the visibility of the grounds, the cameras, the alarms, the dogs and the support of local law enforcement are all incredibly valuable assets in maintaining this security. But it is the men and women who go in and out of that facility each day, prepared for anything and never knowing what a shift will bring, that keep the institution running.
Its not perfect, but in this case, it was just enough.