PHOENIX - Since Sunday, two prison guards have been held hostage by a pair of inmates in a three-story, gray-block watchtower flanked by barbed wire fence and believed to be stocked with weapons.
Over the long days and nights, coffee and water have been sent in; at least one gas canister has been tossed out. But aware that the inmates hold the high ground and the lives of two guards, authorities are doing the only thing they can: keep talking.
The tower is a freestanding structure with two enclosed floors and a screened third floor and overlooks a yard for high-risk inmates. Prison officials will not say whether the tower is stocked with weapons, but say it was built to be secure.
Because the inmates have a high position on open ground, few options exist to end the hostage situation quickly, said Paul Sutton, a criminal justice professor at San Diego State University.
Law enforcement "can't rush it," Sutton said. "Snipers are going to have a real tough time shooting. All they can do is talk."
The inmates probably chose the best place in the prison to hole up, he said. The negotiators' best hope is that the inmates finally get hungry or otherwise desperate enough to let them in, Sutton said.
Talks with the two inmates continued for a fifth day Thursday, an encouraging sign to prison officials.
"The longer (the talks) go on, the more the quality and quantity improve," said Ivan Bartos, a prison warden in Yuma who has been helping officials at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, west of Phoenix.
The hostage standoff began Sunday morning after an inmate attacked two guards and a worker in a kitchen. That prisoner and another inmate then got into the observation tower where the two guards were stationed.
Since then, negotiators have been allowed to see the guards twice; on Thursday, the guards climbed to the top of the watch tower on their own. Negotiators talked to the guards, a man and a woman, as recently as Wednesday, and they indicated they were all right.