But with personal protective gear such as masks and gloves in short supply everywhere, the Arizona Department of Corrections is actively discouraging the guards and other prison staff from using it.
A correctional officer who works inside the Arizona State Prison Complex in Tucson shared multiple emails from superiors dictating that no face masks were allowed to be worn during work. They witnessed a coworker attempt to come into the prison with a mask and immediately be sent home.
The correctional officer, who spoke to The Weekly under terms that they remain anonymous to protect their identity, said both correctional officers and incarcerated people are becoming nervous about a potential outbreak.
“It’s a lot of people in such a little space and everyone knows what that means,” the officer said. “So yeah, it makes me nervous and I think they’re safer in there for now, but once the coronavirus hits, then it’s gonna be hell.”
Criminal justice advocates across Arizona and the entire United States have urged the state government to begin expedited releases of nonviolent prisoners to reduce the risk of infection within prison facilities.
ADC is discouraging their employees from bringing in masks to work because they don’t want to “create panic” in the prison. But in this particular facility, many incarcerated people have access to news broadcasts on television, so they are already aware of what’s happening on the outside.
“I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what it’s like out there right now,” the officer said. “They’re curious, they all know what the media is saying.”
At this particular prison, which has capacity for nearly 5,000 men, incarcerated individuals who show flu-like symptoms will be evaluated by a nurse, and if they are deemed to potentially have COVID-19, correctional officers will take them to a quarantine unit they made themselves.
This quarantine unit is made up of separate cells built for two people each, but the officer said they heard discussions about making them into three-person cells.
A captain responded to one email saying “it is not necessary for any of our staff to be wearing masks here at the unit.” That unit in particular was the Manzanita Unit, which the correctional officer says is being used for quarantining sick prisoners.
Another email, detailing procedures for a different unit in the prison, says prisoners with illnesses are being moved to the “back cells of detention” while parole violators and those returning from court are placed in the front. The email talked about escorting each group of prisoners to and from the showers at separate times, and placing “lots of chemicals” in the area and routinely wiping down “knobs, locks and doors.”
Some men in the quarantine unit are taken to a hospital after a few days of being sick. They take a COVID-19 test and are placed back in the unit, according to the officer. They get results after about three days. As of last week, the officer said they had a dozen test results come back all negative. ADC has indicated that 34 people have been tested as of Wednesday, April 1.
Healthcare vendor Centurion is responsible for providing and managing care for tens of thousands of incarcerated people in state prison facilities not operated by private contractors.
“Centurion maintains a strong partnership with the Departments of Corrections and local health departments to ensure our staff is prepared to quickly identify, isolate, and manage the risk of contagious illness in the correctional facilities that we serve,” said Dr. Wendy Orm, Centurion’s statewide medical director, in a press release. “We understand that education, vigilant adherence to established policies, and proper personal hygiene practices are key to limiting the spread of infection in healthcare environments. Centurion has provided training on COVID-19 to our staff, and continues to update information and take additional precautions as necessary.”
The Tucson correctional officer said a small number of incarcerated men get access to masks. A few within the population have been walking around with masks, most likely because they went to see a nurse and were able to get one there.
But this is not a population-wide distribution. The officer said they’ve seen about 10 people in total with masks, out of the thousands that live there.
Tucson Weekly was not able to interview an ADC spokesperson over the phone, and was instead redirected to the department’s website which has updates about their response to the COVID-19 health emergency posted every few days.
But on April 1, ADC sent out a press release saying that because of the nationwide shortage of personal protective gear, the department did “not want to consume these critical supplies unnecessarily. At this point in the pandemic, our posture continues to focus on presentation of symptoms which has been effective in managing the situation to this point. According to CDC recommendations, masks should be worn by patients with active virus symptoms during transportation to monitoring sites and those providers at healthcare facilities directly treating those patients. As the situation dictates, PPE is available for all employees to appropriately respond.”
On Wednesday, March 18, ADC waived the $4 copay that is usually required for prisoners to receive medical care and halted all “routine internal movement of inmates across all Arizona Prison Complexes.”
Since that week, ADC said they implemented more rigorous cleaning protocols in all facilities. The officer, who works full-time at the Tucson prison, said that has been the case.
“They are doing that, that’s something I’ve been impressed with actually,” the officer said. “They’ve got some product that literally says ‘COVID-19 killer’ on the back of it in small print. It’s once a day they’ve gone around to each room, they call them bubbles, where they spray down the control rooms and everywhere the officers sit and they spray down door handles.”