A guard at a Phoenix youth correctional facility has been suspended with pay after complaining about a "religious" play performed for inmates in which real guns were used in scenes depicting suicide, rape, gang warfare and murder.
Several high-level state officials, including one legislator, have raised concerns about the suspension and question the wisdom of allowing guns into a youth facility.
The play Steppin' Into Darkness is set to poetry and rap music and is produced by Victory Outreach, a Phoenix church that ministers to troubled youth. It was performed at the black Canyon School juvenile facility Nov. 13.
Rep. David Armstead, D-Phoenix, called the content of the play "controversial" and of questionable value but said he is most concerned about the "paranoia and fear" among employees who protested its showing.
Armstead described the disciplinary action against Black Canyon School guard Gary Nicholson as a "witch hunt."
He also questioned whether youth correctional officials are more interested in identifying protesters than "determining if a law was broken" by bringing guns to a correctional facility.
Nicholson would not comment on his suspension or a Nov. 13 memo he wrote detailing concerns that he and the nine other workers who signed it had about the play.
He has not been at work since Dec. 1, when he was first placed on administrative leave. He was allowed to use vacation hours until Tuesday, when he again was placed on leave.
Some of the nine other workers have been questioned, but Nicholson is the only one known to have been suspended.
John Arredondo, director of the Department of Youth, Treatment and Rehabilitation, said Nicholson was placed on leave because investigators are trying to "get to the bottom of this" and determine whether everything in the memo was "correct."
Arredondo said he has launched an investigation into the legality of bringing weapons into the school. He also said he will evaluate whether the play should have been performed.
He said the investigation is expected to be completed in the next few days.
The Black Canyon School employees outlined their concerns about the production in the memo to Arredondo and Gov. Fife Symington.
A source close to the governor's office said "the Symington administration has had concerns" about how the Department of Youth, Treatment and Rehabilitation has handled the issue.
Kurt Davis, an executive assistant to Symington who oversees public-safety issues, would say only that "we are aware of these concerns" of the workers.
The employee memo called the production, with its simulated murders and rapes, an "outrage" and clearly an illegal activity.
It is a felony to bring weapons into a correctional facility, but state law does not say whether the law applies to guns brought in with the permission of correctional officials.
A Nov. 14 letter from Victory Outreach to Correctional officials clearly states that real guns would be used in the play. The letter, addressed to chief of diagnostics Esteban Veloz, states that the play incorporates two 12-guage shotguns, two .38-caliber specials, two .357 Magnums, one .22-caliber rifle, and one .22-caliber starter gun.
Veloz was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Victory Outreach minister Tony Garcia defended the realism in the play and said it was important to use real guns loaded with blanks.
"In order to grip the hearts of these young people, you have to have a good hook," said Garcia, who was a gang member 15 years ago in California. "You can't have a guy in a polyester suit say, 'Dearly beloved.'"
Real guns graphically illustrate the dangerous life of gang members, he said.
"What are you going to do, stand up there and say, 'Pow'?" Garcia asked.
The Nov. 13 production was the fist time the play was performed inside a correctional facility, Garcia said. It had been performed at schools and in parks.
Black Canyon School, which is near Pinnacle Peak Road and the Black Canyon Freeway, evaluates new inmates to determine where they should be place.
Rep. Armstead said Arredondo's suspension of Nicholson had backfired.
"You can't expect employees to speak out when you place the head of their EIG (Employees Involvement Group) on administrative leave," he said.
Arredondo said employees still should not be afraid to come forward.
""I have never, nor will I ever, fire an employee for speaking out," he said.
Joel Lewon, a guard who signed the memo, said he and others "were very upset" when they saw real guns on the campus.
"Everybody had a fear factor," he said. "They had the weapons. We don't have any. They could control the institution."
Lewon said Guards were not informed that guns were coming on campus and were not told what security measures were taken to ensure that blanks could not be replaced with real bullets or small rocks once the guns were inside.
Another employee who feared he also would face disciplinary action if his name were used called Steppin' Into Darkness the "most violent play I have ever seen" and said that when actors, some of them former gang members, "pointed guns in my direction, I feared for my life."
Arredondo said he did not know what measures had been taken to guarantee that the guns could not be loaded with real ammunition.
Garcia said the guns were checked by a youth corrections 'weapons expert' before they were allowed on campus. Garcia added that the school's expert loaded each gun with blanks as it was needed during the production.