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Arizona clears prison 'warehouse' in prep for COVID-19 inmate infections

Gov. Ducey refuses compassionate releases of state prisoners

At a time when several states have decided to release low-risk segments of their prison populations ahead of rising COVID-19 infections, the Arizona Department of Corrections is reportedly converting "warehouses" in order to accommodate prisoners who become infected with the highly contagious and potentially fatal virus.

The move, at the Lewis prison unit southwest of Phoenix, comes as there are at least 300 corrections officers are on sick leave, with symptoms of potential coronavirus infections, a union official told TucsonSentinel.com.

Update: 2 Arizona prison inmates test positive for COVID-19

"Honestly, the biggest threat to the inmates is the officers," with each guard coming and going every shift change being a potential vector of transmission, said the president of the Arizona Corrections Association, who also criticized the department's shifting policies in responding to the outbreak. Some guards have expressed fears of becoming infected themselves if there is an outbreak inside a prison.

While families of at-risk prisoners clamor for compassionate release, the office of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey — already subject to criticism for delaying the issuance of a statewide "stay at home" order, and for a controversial list of "essential businesses" (including golf courses, and until recently, beauty salons) — issued a terse statement, declaring that no prisoners will be released in response to the pandemic.

According to a March 29 post made to a Facebook group, AZ Correctional Officers United, a number of Arizona Department of Corrections staff had met with the agency's Northern Regional Operations director a few days prior. During the meeting, the group discussed ADOC's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The department is preparing 2 empty warehouses at Lewis complex to house any confirmed cases of COVID-19," wrote the author of the post, who went on to discuss ADOC's other efforts to quarantine and monitor prisoners entering the state system from county jails.

ADOC did not respond to requests for comment, or other written questions from TucsonSentinel.com about the department's plans.

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Clinton Roberts, president of one of the state's unions for corrections officers, works as an guard at Arizona State Prison Complex Lewis, near Buckeye, west of Phoenix. The union leader said he is familiar with ADOC's COVID-19 preparations — and, while he wouldn't necessarily describe the makeshift "dormacile" facility at Lewis as a "warehouse," it does seem to come pretty close.

"No, no — I mean, the dorm-style setting is kinda like a warehouse. I mean, it's not an actual warehouse, but it's in a physical building with ventilation. So it's not an actual warehouse — similar to how [ASPC] Perryville is with the females, where it's just a metal building," said Roberts. "You know, it's an actual physical brick building. You know, they were using it for storage for other things, and they just converted it — by putting beds and showers in, and toilets."

This converted storage building is capable of housing around 100 potentially infected prisoner, Roberts told TucsonSentinel.com.

Elsewhere at ASPC Lewis, according to Roberts, another 80 or 90 "beds" have been prepared in one-half of a secure detention unit. This, he said, is being used for the quarantining of inmates who leave complex grounds for four hours or more.

In addition, Roberts said he believed there were roughly another 20 existing medical beds that could be "brought online" if needed — though he indicated those beds were, at present, in use for "convalescent inmates."

Beyond this, said the corrections union president, if a coronavirus outbreak exceeding these roughly 200 beds occurs, it may be possible to house ill prisoners within the defunct ASPC Lewis Morey Unit, as repairs needed to make the facility operable are made. The unit was closed last year when it was discovered that doors in the prison did not lock, allowing inmates to move about freely.

"They are slowly working on Morey Unit, with the doors. So, I'm sure, as those beds get added on, they can move the population around," said Roberts. "I mean, if it gets upward of, you know, 300 or 400 inmates, we can convert an entire unit to handle that. They can change the population around by moving the inmates. So, it would basically just be a shell game at that point — moving inmates."

The wisdom of a "shell game" approach to containing a highly contagious virus which seems to only respond to strict quarantine may be dubious. Nevertheless, Roberts stated that he believed the roughly 200 sick/quarantine "beds" at ASPC Lewis (half of which are in a converted storage building) are the only housing preparations for potential COVID-19 infections currently underway within the entire Arizona state prison system.

There are nearly 42,000 prisoners in the state prison system — distributed throughout 10 state-run prison complexes and six private, for-profit, facilities.

ADOC said a Friday news release that there have been no cases of COVID-19 infection confirmed among prisoners within the state prison system. The department claimed 39 inmate tests have returned negative results. According to ADOC, five inmate tests were still pending on Friday.

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Since April 2019, ADOC prisoner healthcare has been provided by private contractor, Centurion of Arizona (a subsidiary of Centurion Managed Care, owned by Centene Corporation).

Centurion did not respond to questions pertaining to the number of COVID-19 tests available for the Arizona prison population, nor did Centurion respond to questions regarding the number of ventilators on hand to treat prisoners who become critically ill with COVID-19.

And, where Centurion is concerned, Roberts did not sound optimistic: "They're short-staffed, just like the rest of us."

300 Az corrections officers on sick leave with symptoms

Meanwhile, the threat of an outbreak within the confines of the state prison system looms.

"Honestly, the biggest threat to the inmates is the officers," said Roberts.

According to an ABC15 report last week, at least three ADOC corrections officers have either tested positive, or are presumed to be positive, for COVID-19.

'Honestly, the biggest threat to the inmates is the officers.'

And, according to Roberts, as of April 3, approximately 300 ADOC officers are out on sick leave because they present symptoms of COVID-19 infection.

The likely "saving grace" preventing an outbreak of COVID-19 within the state prison system, as Roberts sees it, is what the union leader describes as ADOC's inadequate staffing levels.

According to Roberts, there are roughly 4,500 ADOC guards. With roughly 1/15th of that force out on sick leave (and some of those possibly infected with COVID-19), Roberts says remaining officers are working extra hard — which limits their ability to do anything else, including any activity carrying risk of COVID-19 infection.

"I've worked 76 hours this week," said Roberts. "I'm either there at the prison, or I'm at home. I'm not going out in public [...] We're not out there exposing ourselves — you see what I'm saying?"

According to Roberts, the low staffing levels are due to ADOC's "atrocious" pay. Prior to a 10-percent raise received by officers last summer, he said, Arizona prison guards hadn't seen a bump in pay since 2006.

And signs of stress are beginning to show. Roberts makes no secret of his bitterness over the fact that, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Arizona's prisoners have what he believes to be easier access to goods such as soap, toilet paper and Top Ramen instant noodles. ADOC workers, by comparison, must make do with picked-over grocery stores on the outside, where toilet paper and other necessities are becoming permanent scarcities.

"I can't find Ramen noodles anywhere," said Roberts, who went on to discuss Phoenix-area scarcities of meat, toilet paper, and disinfectant products.

"[T]he one that boggled my mind was the Top Ramen. I was like 'holy crap — we can't find Top Ramen.' But these inmates order their store every week, and some of these guys can order darn near $200-worth of store [...] They're getting their Top Ramen, their tuna — you know, things they're allowed to order. But, us, on the outside, we can't get it."

ADOC's shifting reponse: Mask off, mask on

ADOC's response to the pandemic has been nothing if not erratic. As of early afternoon on Friday, April 3, the department was not allowing officers to wear face masks. "Our posture continues to focus on presentation of symptoms," an ADOC memo said last week.

Indeed, according to Roberts, a number of ADOC officers were sent home on that day because they insisted on wearing protective masks.

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Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, another union of guards, posted a video message calling for prison staff to defy orders and wear masks to work.

Friday, after guards were sent home, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance, recommending that all Americans wear cloth face masks when interacting outside the home. ADOC then issued a statement — that same day — recommending that officers wear masks while working.

Posts made to the AZ Correctional Officers United Facebook group prior to the CDC update revealed guards' fears of infection.

Several officers expressed concerns that they, and their families in turn, could be infected through a potential outbreak among the inmate population. As such, correctional officers said they wanted to stem the risk of infection preemptively, through the use of cloth masks — even at a time when the department was forbidding it.

One member of the group, in an April 1 post, advertised cloth masks sewn by his wife for sale to his fellow officers.

Still other officer posts, as well as anecdotes from inmate families and advocates, tell of uneven availability and scarcity of hand sanitizer for guards and soap for prisoners.

ADOC's response to the pandemic stands out at a time when high potential for virus transmission within the confines of jails and prisons is prompting the compassionate release of low-risk and medically compromised prisoners around the county. Authorities in at least a dozen states, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have begun varying processes of identifying prisoners for release (including home confinement and/or monitoring).

According to Joe Watson of the American Friends Service Committee, at least four of Arizona's 15 counties have made some effort to reduce their jail populations.

Coconino County released 50 prisoners in direct response to COVID-19 concerns, said Watson, spokesman for prisoner's rights advocacy group in Arizona.

He said the Pima County Public Defender' Office and the Pima County Attorney's Office had worked to identify approximately 140 prisoners for release — though only 40 of that number were approved by Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.

Further, said Watson, the Pima County Sheriff's Department had modified terms of release or rescheduled dates to serve jail time for 30 individuals dealing with drug or DUI offenses.

Graham County released roughly a quarter of their entire inmate population, said Watson.

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Maricopa County has ended work release and work furlough programs at its jails, stating that releases may be granted to some prisoners enrolled in those programs. This affected around 160 prisoners in that county, Watson said.

According to ADOC data, as of April 3, the state of Arizona is confining nearly 13,500 minimum custody prisoners.

Of these minimum custody prisoners, nearly 3,400 are held in for-profit private prisons operated by Management and Training Corporation or Geo Group.

Of those in for-profit prisons, 930 are incarcerated for DUIs.

"There are literally thousands and thousands of families across the state who want to know what is happening to their incarcerated loved ones — the overwhelming majority of whom were not sentenced to die in prison," said Watson.

AFSC and a number of other groups advocating for the rights of prisoners and their families have been calling upon the state to release some prisoners, or to — in the least — ensure that ADOC is in compliance with guidance relating to COVID-19 promulgated by the Arizona Department of Health Services and the CDC.

Stacy Scheff is a Tucson attorney who represents Arizona prisoners and their families. A growing number of her clients, some with medical conditions placing them at heightened risk of COVID-19, have requested her help in attempting to gain release, she said.

According to Scheff, ADOC has been telling the families of such prisoners that the only possible way for them to gain release in light of the global pandemic is to file for executive clemency or compassionate release from the governor.

ADOC did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Such requests, said Scheff, must pass individual review by the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency. If the board, upon deliberation, approves a prisoner's clemency petition, the board's recommendation is transmitted to the governor for approval. The trouble with this (aside from the glacial pace of such processes), said Scheff, is that Ducey is not known to grant such releases.

Outside of clemency or compassionate release, Scheff said she has advised clients that the only other avenue currently available is to sue the state for release through injunctive relief. The problem there (again, setting aside the glacial pace of litigation), is that such litigation likely costs at least $20,000 to pursue — which is not an option for many families of the incarcerated, she said.

While issues of compassion for those convicted of criminal offenses are often perceived by the political class to be a dangerous area of policy, there do appear to be signs of softening (however slight) as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on.

When asked whether his prison guards' union would support compassionate release for groups of non-violent and non-habitual offenders, ACA President Roberts said, "Would we be an advocate for it? No. Would we have an issue with it? No. I mean, that's up to the politicians, the lawmakers — if that's what they feel, because they're elected by the public, and if that's the way the public feels..."

Nevertheless, for those families of the incarcerated scanning the horizon for signs of hope, the office of the state's chief executive offers little more than a cold shoulder.

On March 31, Ducey spokesman Pat Ptak said that no Arizona prisoners would be released in response to the pandemic.

Ptak did not respond to questions regarding the governor's position on compassionate release.

Neither did Ptak did not respond to questions pertaining to ADOC's strategy of converting storage space to house ill prisoners, or whether such a plan had been carried out with the governor's knowledge and approval.

Disclosure: Joe Watson contributed reporting to TucsonSentinel.com, prior to working for AFSC.


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ADOC

One of the units at the Arizona State Prison Complex - Lewis.