An Arizona Prison Whistleblower Was Found Dead of Apparent Suicide

In April 2019, Arizona correctional sergeant Gabriela Contreras risked her job to reveal the corruption and unsafe conditions at a jail facility. Less than a year later, the whistleblower was found dead in an apparent suicide.

Contreras leaked surveillance videos and revealed corruption in Arizona’s prison system. Her actions led to investigations and eventual reforms in the department of corrections. She was suspended for a week for downloading the videos, ABC News reported.

“I had enough,” Contreras told ABC15 about her decision to download and leak the videos. “Because it’s a crime, what they were doing: allowing this to happen, allowing staff to get hurt, and not doing anything about it.”

On March 8, Goodyear Police Department responded to a “domestic disturbance” call at Contreras’ home, Goodyear Police spokeswoman Lisa Berry said in a statement to The North Star. Officers discovered Contreras in her bedroom “unresponsive, with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.” Officers performed “lifesaving measures,” but ultimately Contreras was pronounced dead at the scene, Berry said.

“The Goodyear Police Department considers this a suicide and next of kin has been notified,” she added.

Records from the Maricopa County’s Medical Examiner’s office obtained by ABC News noted that Contreras’ manner of death was ruled a suicide caused by a “gunshot wound of head.” Contreras was 31-years-old.

In a statement to The North Star, Arizona Department of Corrections Director David Shinn offered his condolences to Contreras’ family.

“On behalf of the men and women of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, I would like to express our deepest condolences to the family of Correctional Officer III Ana Gabriela Contreras, who passed away early this morning,” Shinn wrote. “This is a sad day for us all, and tragic loss as she was a valued member of our team.”

A GoFundMe to help with funeral expenses has raised more than $6,000 in two days.

Whistleblowing and Reforms

Contreras initially leaked surveillance videos showing multiple jail units with cell doors that did not lock properly and altered documentation about the broken locks anonymously in April 2019. A month later, she came forward in an interview with ABC15.

She also wrote a letter to Governor Doug Ducey on May 15, 2019, after he launched an investigation. In her letter to the governor, Contreras said that jail staffers were ordered to modify reports about each broken cell door by their superior.

“The deputy warden was outraged that we reported all of the deficiencies we found,” she wrote to Ducey. “He told us that we were only to count the cell doors that opened on their own when the padlock was removed—and that we should not have included cell doors that opened with a slight juggle or push or be caused to register an Unauthorized Access alert on the computer on this report.”

Contreras told Ducey that the deputy warden was attempting to “present his office with false and/or misleading information and falsifying public records.”

Contreras’ action resulted in the repairs and replacement of more than 1,000 cell doors and new leadership in the prison system, which was officially renamed the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry. The prison system’s long-time embattled director, Charles Ryan, suddenly announced his retirement in August 2019 following 10 years as director, ABC15 reported.

Arizona Prisons By The Numbers

  • Arizona’s incarceration rate (including prisons, jails, immigration detention and juvenile justice facilities) is 877 per 100,000 people. (Prison Policy Initiative)

  • There are 10 state prisons and six private facilities in Arizona.

  • 42,350 people are incarcerated in Arizona prisons, according to the daily count sheet for March 12. Another 14,000 are in jail, 4,600 in federal prisons, 720 in youth detention, 170 in involuntary commitment and 740 in Indian Country.

  • Arizona’s incarceration rate is higher than the United States overall. (Prison Policy Initiative)

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About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.