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'There's always somebody to blame:' Former Perryville prison warden speaks out over extreme heat concerns

The I-Team first started reporting on concerns over hot cells last week, with claims from inmates that some cell temperatures were hitting more than 100 degrees.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The former warden at Perryville prison is defending herself and her team after retiring this week amid concerns of extreme heat inside the prison.

"I don't appreciate that I'm being blasted on the news like this was my fault," Laura Pyle said in an interview with the 12News I-Team Friday. "That the director came and saved Perryville, because that's not the case."

The I-Team first started reporting on concerns over hot cells last week, with claims from inmates and their families that some cell temperatures were hitting the 90s or low 100s.  

RELATED: Perryville's warden steps down amid extreme heat problems at the prison

After the I-Team brought these claims to Department of Corrections Director Ryan Thornell last week, he went to visit Perryville and reportedly checked temperatures for himself.

"There was a cell that was that was pretty hot," Pyle said. "The information that I received after the fact was that that cell had literally just gone down."

She was referring to the cooling system going down, which depending on the unit, could be air conditioning or a swamp cooler.  She said these are issues she's experienced throughout her nearly 24 years with the Department of Corrections.

"We have a mitigation plan that we've implemented," Pyle said. "And we implement it every year. And we've already been doing that."

RELATED: Inmates offered free ice amid concerns over 'unbearable' heat in cells at Perryville prison

Records obtained late Friday by the I-Team revealed that some cells in the Lumley Unit, which doesn't have air conditioning, only swamp coolers, hit more than 100 degrees on July 17, which Pyle said could have been due to a cooling system being broken.

She explained that anytime a swamp cooler or air conditioner broke down, maintenance came to fix it.

"Every single time that something went down, I reported it," she said.  "And then as soon as it was fixed, a second report. It's fixed now."

After that visit, Thornell made some changes over the weekend, like putting misters in the yard and more shade structures.

"We were doing what we've done all the time, but we've never had an issue" Pyle said, claiming Thornell never asked her team about their heat plans before his visit to Perryville. "I believe that the director probably got overwhelmed. We were on the news several times. And you know, there's always somebody to blame at the end of the day, right?

"Why do you think you're the person that they blame?" asked the I-Team's Erica Stapleton?

"Because I'm the warden," Pyle said. "At the end of the day, as a warden, I'm the one responsible for the facility. But I can tell you that the shades that he put that weekend? That's not something that I could have done. The misters that he put that weekend? That's not something that I could have done. Because our policy is very clear. When it comes to water hoses, we can't have water hoses out there. Those can be used for escape, they can be used for somebody to hang hang themselves."

RELATED: 'Life-threatening': Families worried their loved ones will die in Perryville prison over extreme heat

Pyle said she wasn’t given a chance to explain herself after the director’s visit and when she had a meeting with him on Tuesday, she told him she was retiring.

To her, the heat is nothing new. She said the problem is the old equipment, waiting on air conditioners to replace swamp coolers.

"I was hoping they would be done before this summer," Pyle explained. "Because I knew this was gonna happen."

When the I-Team sat down with Thornell last Wednesday, before he visited Perryville, he said the AC units in question were in the budget for the end of next year, 2024.

"I would say it's not, it's not taking so long," the director said, adding tha supply chain issues, funding and the old building design all played a role in the plan. "The timeline is moving along as we would have expected it to."

The I-Team’s asked repeatedly to do another interview with Thornell after he visited Perryville, but the Department of Corrections declined again on Friday.

"Some inmates did say that they went to the media because they wanted the attention," Pyle said. "And they wanted to make sure that those ACS got put in. They didn't want to go another summer without it."

The Media Relations Team at the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry sent the following email to 12News Friday.

"Director Thornell will not have availability for an interview today or next week.

If you have any new concerns or questions about new issues, please feel free to send them to us in writing.

A vast majority of the input ADCRR has been hearing from families, inmates, and the community has been appreciative of our Department’s efforts to help the incarcerated population stay safe and cool during this hot summer weather. This remains our highest priority as we endure the extreme heat."

The I-Team followed up with written questions and are waiting to hear back.  The I-Team also asked Governor Hobbs for an interview multiple times and received a statement from her spokesperson that did not address the heat or Perryville prison specifically:

"Governor Hobbs is proud to be taking action to fix a deeply broken corrections system with problems suffering from years of inaction. She's glad Director Thornell and the Prison Oversight Commission are working to fix our prisons and is committed to partnering with them in their critical work to ensure prisons are safe and humane."


Learn more about other 12News investigations by subscribing to the 12News YouTube channel and watching our I-Team playlist. 

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