By Dennis Wagner and Judi Villa, The Arizona Republic
After 13 days of negotiations, the questions come up wherever people talk about the Arizona prison hostage standoff: Why don't police snipers just take out the two inmates? Why don't they send in a SWAT team?
The answer from State Prison Complex-Lewis: It is virtually impossible to get at the watchtower or its heavily armed occupants without endangering the lives of law officers and the remaining hostage.
"It's our worst nightmare," said Cam Hunter, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman. "This facility is meant to protect our corrections officers and staff. It is a fortress."
Joe Masella, president of Arizona Correctional Peace Officer Association, said he hears the grousing from critics who don't understand the risks and who forget that one hostage already is free, thanks to negotiations. Talk of some bold rescue comes largely from "a bunch of armchair Rambos who watch too much TV," he added.
On Friday, officials talked to the hostage in an exchange monitored by health care professionals, including a doctor. "They (health care workers) feel that they know she's alert, that she's mobile," Hunter said. "She's hanging in there."
The crisis began Jan. 18 after a pair of inmates assaulted two corrections officers and a kitchen worker. The inmates then took control of the watchtower and captured two officers. One of the officers was released on Day 7, leaving a female officer alone with the inmates. Prison officials, who last had contact with the woman Thursday, say she appears to be OK. They also say that time is on her side. Officials are releasing few details about the inmates or their hostages, citing concern for the safety of the hostage.
The drama is the longest prison hostage drama in modern U.S. history.
There are some who have lost patience, especially with a woman in the hands of violent felons.
But prison officials and outside experts say everything about the three-story stronghold gives inmates the advantage in a commando-style raid.
Among the obstacles:
The tower virtually eliminates a surprise attack. Located in the center of the Morey Unit yard, the 20- by 30-foot building is designed to provide a view of all surrounding areas.
"The tower is designed to keep people out," noted Ivan Bartos, warden at the State Prison Complex-Yuma. "The tower has a commanding view of the yard. Those two factors certainly pose challenges . . . to tactical planning."
The structure itself is fenced in and constructed to withstand an assault. It is accessible only through a series of security passages.
When the inmates took over the tower, they acquired a formidable arsenal that includes a semiautomatic assault rifle and tear-gas canisters. Former corrections officers say the tower also contains other weapons.
Hunter said DOC officials would not substantiate any reports about the type of firepower that might be stored in watchtowers: "It's not a facility that we want inmates to ever enter or see. We don't want them to know what's in there or isn't in there. Clearly that has implications for us tactically."
Among the violent options, sniper fire is the most obvious. But every expert contacted for this story said marksmen should not be green-lighted unless both targets can be taken out simultaneously.
At Lewis prison, the two inmates have taken turns walking around the observation deck. Both made appearances Friday, confidently smoking cigarettes, getting sunshine, doing chores. But they have never emerged at the same time.
Los Angeles police SWAT commander and negotiator Mike Odle said snipers should be used only if negotiations have failed or if a hostage faces death or serious injury.
Odle, who is not involved in the Lewis prison saga, said it appears negotiations have stalemated, most likely because the inmates have nothing to barter except their remaining hostage and nothing they can request that authorities would be willing to grant.
"When it does reach an impasse, that's when we start considering a physical resolution," he added.
Odle said the final option, a full-scale assault, should be avoided unless there is a reasonable expectation of success. Given the inmates' "stronghold" at Lewis, he added, that seems unlikely.
So the negotiations continue into a third week. Dwayne Fuselier, a former FBI hostage negotiator, said officials should beware of the so-called action imperative, a feeling that something has to be done because of public pressure.
"It's what they see on TV; they always storm the fortress," Bartos said. "Why aren't we doing that? If you ask me, we're doing what we should be doing."