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8 corrections officers sue, claim unsafe working conditions

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A corrections officer who was sexually assaulted by an inmate at the Yuma state prison is among eight prison guards suing Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan and the state of Arizona for conditions they contend led to assaults and injuries.

The suit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court lists understaffing, poor maintenance and other factors that put corrections officers at risk statewide. The suit seeks an injunction requiring the Department of Corrections to fix the problems and compensation for their injuries.

The inmate who assaulted the female officer in Yuma last year kissed and fondled her and tried to have intercourse with her during an April 13 meeting in an office. Fernandes Masters was serving a life sentence for murder and received an additional 11 years for the assault.

The lawsuit says the officer, whose name is being withheld by The Associated Press because she is a victim of a sex crime, has been unable to return to her normal job.

Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder said Tuesday the agency was reviewing the “bare allegations” in the lawsuit.

“There are more than 7,000 corrections professionals who work inside Arizona state prisons each and every day,” Wilder said. “Their safety and security is the Department’s highest priority, and we take seriously all concerns.”

Wilder said that in seven of eight instances cited in the suit, prison investigators identified, arrested and sought prosecution of the assailants.

The state’s workplace safety agency is working to determine if conditions that led to the Yuma assault violated safety rules.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 22 and announced by the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association on Tuesday, names seven other officers who were assaulted as plaintiffs. Besides understaffing, the suit alleges that broken lighting, faulty radios and defective locks contributed to the ability of inmates to assault the officers.

A Corrections Department report to the Legislature in July showed the prison system overall was nearly 9 percent below approved staffing levels, with some prisons having much higher levels of understaffing.

The lawsuit comes less than two months after the state paid a former prison teacher $3 million to settle a lawsuit she filed after being raped by an inmate at the state prison in Florence. She had been left alone in the classroom with a convicted rapist with no guard nearby when she was attacked in January 2014.

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