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Lack of COVID-19 testing, information raises questions in Arizona prisons

Posted at 9:25 PM, Apr 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-23 00:25:28-04

Confirmed COVID-19 infections continue to increase in the Arizona Department of Corrections but the true number of cases is unknown because of limited testing and a lack of information released by state officials.

As of April 22, there are 35 inmates who have tested positive for coronavirus in four prison complexes. More than double the number a week ago.

However, less than one half of 1 percent of inmates have been tested. In some prisons, no inmates have been tested.

That’s the case in the Perryville complex, which houses more than 4,000 female inmates and where ABC15 confirmed an officer tested positive this week.

“On 4/21/2020 at approximately 1115 hours Officer (name redacted by ABC15) called and voluntarily told me that he had tested positive for COVID-19,” according to an information report obtained by ABC15.

The prison internally released a flier alerting staff to the positive case and stated that “no other employees were identified as being at risk.”

But Carlos Garcia, executive director for the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, said that’s not true.

The staff member was a kitchen officer who has repeated contact with inmates and staff, he said.

“This is the worst-case scenario,” Garcia said. “The worst person who can catch this is a kitchen officer…They’re having contact with inmates left and right, staff left and right. It’s close proximity.”

The department did not directly respond to a question about whether it stands by the statement that no other employees are at risk.

“We continue to use every means of communication available to update staff about the current situation. Regrettably, the majority of our employees system-wide do not have access to email and alternative means of communications are often necessary to reach employees,” according to a written statement.

Despite the increase, prison administrators also continue to move officers between prisons, according to documents and union officials.

Records show, officers are routinely floated from the Yuma complex, which has no confirmed inmate cases, to the Florence complex.

Florence leads the state in positive cases with 23.

Garcia said he has confirmed that more than 30 officers have tested positive for COVID-19 in seven different complexes.

That's three more complexes than for confirmed cases of inmates.

The state refuses to provide the general number and prison locations of officers who have tested positive.

Officials said that information is barred by state and federal privacy laws. Multiple attorneys tell ABC15 that’s not true.

Other states are releasing that information regularly online.

Advocates, attorneys, officers, and outside public health experts also worry about the spread of COVID-19 in prisons because the facilities can become hubs for community spread.

There are thousands of department employees who enter and leave the facilities every day.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at dave@abc15.com.