IMAGE: SAM LEWIS CORRECTIONAL FACILITY
Matt York  /  AP
The hostage situation at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis began when an inmate attacked a guard in the kitchen.
updated 1/22/2004 10:39:39 PM ET 2004-01-23T03:39:39

Since Sunday, two prison guards have been held hostage by a pair of inmates in a three-story, gray-block watchtower flanked by barbed wire fence and believed to be stocked with weapons.

Over the long days and nights, coffee and water have been sent in; at least one gas canister has been tossed out. But aware that the inmates hold the high ground and the lives of two guards, authorities are doing the only thing they can: keep talking.

The tower is a free-standing structure with two enclosed floors and a screened third floor and overlooks a yard for high-risk inmates. Prison officials will not say whether the tower is stocked with weapons but note that it was built to be secure.

Because the inmates have a high position on open ground, few options exist to end the hostage situation quickly, said Paul Sutton, a criminal justice professor at San Diego State University who has studied prison life.

Law enforcement “can’t rush it. Snipers are going to have a real tough time shooting. All they can do is talk,” Sutton said.

The inmates probably chose the best place in the prison to hole up, he said. The negotiators’ best hope is that the inmates finally get hungry or otherwise desperate enough to let them in, Sutton said.

Talking seen as constructive
Talks with the two inmates continued for a fifth day Thursday, an encouraging sign to prison officials.

“The longer [the talks] go on, the more the quality and quantity improve,” said Ivan Bartos, a prison warden in Yuma who has been helping officials at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis in Buckeye, west of Phoenix.

The hostage standoff began Sunday morning after an inmate attacked two guards and a worker in a kitchen. That prisoner and another inmate then got into the observation tower where the two guards were stationed.

Since then, negotiators have been allowed to see the guards twice, and talked to them as recently as Wednesday. The guards, one male and one female, indicated they were all right.

Corrections officials have been careful to withhold information about the inmates’ demands, their identities and criminal history or their captives.

Keeping it quiet
Bartos said withholding the information is largely a tactical decision. Negotiators must assume that the inmates have access to broadcast media, he said.

“We don’t want them to know what we know,” he said.

Sutton said refusing to give the inmates’ names or other information may also deprive the inmates of something they likely want: media attention.

“They don’t have an opportunity to articulate any kind of grievance,” said Sutton, who noted that in other high-profile prison hostage cases, such as the one in 1971 in Attica, N.Y., inmates demanded media access.

Gaylene Armstrong, a criminal justice professor at Arizona State University West, said prison hostage situations are rare, so it’s difficult to say why the inmates got themselves into what seems like a hopeless situation.

“It can be a very stressful environment for some people — most people — both the inmates and the officers,” she said. “Sometimes poor decisions are made.”

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