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2 Arizona prison inmates test positive for COVID-19

Two Arizona prison inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, authorities said — one a state prisoner now at a hospital, and another an inmate at a Marana private prison.

"The first inmate has been housed at a community hospital since March 27, 2020 due to several non-COVID-related symptoms," state officials said. "The inmate was found positive after having been previously tested twice with negative results while at the same community hospital where he currently remains."

The other prisoner is being held at the 500-inmate at the Marana Community Correctional Treatment Facility operated by Management and Training Corporation, a private prison contractor.

"Both inmates are receiving appropriate medical care at their current locations," a news release from the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry said.

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

Of the more than 42,000 state prison inmates, 60 have been tested, 48 have tested negative, 10 are pending and two have tested positive.

The announcement that two inmates have tested positive comes after TucsonSentinel.com's report that ADOC is converting "warehouses" in order to accommodate prisoners who become infected with the highly contagious and potentially fatal virus.

The move to clear space in a storage building, 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.

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"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.

RoClinton 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. He told TucsonSentinel.com 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.

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

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

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.

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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?"

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

Read more from reporter Beau Hodai in "Arizona clears prison 'warehouse' in prep for COVID-19 inmate infections."

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

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