GOODYEAR, AZ (3TV/CBS5) -- The woman known as the Arizona prison "whistleblower" has died at the age of 31, according to Goodyear police. Ana "Gaby" Contreras died Sunday night. Police say that they are treating this as a suicide, but the exact cause of her death will be determined by the medical examiner.
Contreras first made news when she spoke out about broken door locks and other safety issues at Lewis Prison in Buckeye. She said that since 2018, she and her team had been making reports about cell doors that weren't locking, and that she had had conversations with her supervisors about "security issues" at the unit.
But, she said, nothing was ever done. "It was very unsafe for everybody," she said at the time. Videos also surfaced of inmates walking freely in and out of cells that were supposed to be locked.
A source told Arizona’s Family Monday that they’re aware of officers complaining about faulty doors for the past year and that inmates are jamming up the tracks of the doors so that they don’t lock.
Contreras had said she believed that then-director of the Department of Corrections, Charles Ryan, had been aware of the problem for years. “This isn’t something new,” she had said.
After she spoke out about the prison safety issues, Contreras said she suffered retaliation for coming forward. "My deputy wanted to try and intimidate me and try to make it seem like I was a criminal, that they could press charges on me for, you know, getting this evidence out there, or obtaining it and having it my possession," she said at the time. It was determined that Contreras would not be disciplined. But nevertheless, she had said she still still had concerns about her future. “I would say my career is gonna be very limited on what I can do in the department,” she said.
At the time, she also delivered a message for others in the ADC who might consider coming forward. “They need to have courage,” she had said. “It’s not going to be an easy ride, of course. It comes with a lot of stress, but I think it would be more stressful to live with lives on your conscience than it would to just speak up and… at least try to protect some people.”
The evidence that Contreras helped bring to light resulted in major changes in the prison system. The Governor’s Office launched an investigation into the faulty cell locks, and ultimately, locks on more than 1,000 cell doors were replaced.
The Arizona Department of Corrections received legislative approval Tuesday to begin replacing cell door locks, fire alarms and air conditioning at two state prisons.
The story also brought about changes in the prison system administration. Director Charles Ryan abruptly announced his retirement in August of 2019.
David Shinn has since taken over the department. “Our goal was to identify a leader with extensive experience in the corrections field, a record of solving problems and getting results, and a passion for public service. David Shinn is that leader,” said Governor Ducey at the time, speaking out about Shinn's hiring.
The ADC issued the following statement following Contreras' death:
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. This is a sad day for us all, and tragic loss as she was a valued member of our team.