No time to breathe easy - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

No time to breathe easy

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Posted: Tuesday, February 3, 2004 8:25 pm | Updated: 6:07 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The standoff at the Lewis prison near Buckeye ended as everyone hoped: With both hostages freed and the kidnappers back in custody.

Once it began, that’s the best we could ask. That it didn’t end in a bloodbath surely must be credited to tireless negotiators and patient officials. Thanks to them, we did not see a reprise of Attica.

But now that it’s over, we need to learn what went wrong and fix it. We got off easy this time, but as Arizona prisons hold more and more dangerous felons, the powder keg will become more volatile.

That the two inmates began their escape attempt by using home-made knives is no surprise. Knives can be made of almost anything, and prisons are full of them. But we wonder why security was so lax they were able to overpower everyone in the kitchen area and make their way to the guard tower out in the yard.

Once there, inmate Ricky Wassenaar — disguised in a stolen guard uniform — was allowed through a gate and into the tower itself, wherefrom he covered his partner, Steven Coy, with gunfire as Coy dashed inside.

With all the high-tech ID devices available these days, it seems incomprehensible that an inmate in disguise would just be let through the gate.

There also are questions raised by Wassenaar’s radio interview, in which he accused corrections officials of being slow to respond, for example, to requests for handcuff keys so the manacled tower guards could be released after the siege’s early hours had passed.

Public hearings in the Legislature, bolstered by the power of subpoena, might go a long way toward shedding light on these and other matters.

Meanwhile, it was not merely prison officials who showed restraint during the siege. Valley news media had access to a great deal more information than they actually shared during the 15 days. But releasing it might have disrupted negotiations and led to a tragic outcome. The media rightly take their share of lumps, but their performance here was admirable.

Arizona justifiably feels relief at the end of the ordeal. The hostages are safe, though apparently not unharmed. Now we must set about the hard business of preventing a sequel.

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