ACLU suing several agencies for alleged failure to protect inmates from COVID-19

Posted at 10:01 PM, Aug 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-21 01:01:48-04

PHOENIX — The ACLU of Arizona has started the process of suing Maricopa County and Core Civic, a company that operates private prisons in Arizona for allegedly putting inmate and detainee lives at risk by not doing enough to protect them from COVID-19.

In the first page of a 50-page complaint filed against Maricopa County and Sheriff Paul Penzone, ACLU attorneys state "The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over at Maricopa County's five jails and the virus is spreading rapidly".

Jared Keenan, a criminal justice attorney for the ACLU tells ABC15 what happens behind bars is sure to impact the whole community.

"Staff, guards, all of these people go in and out of the jail every day, and they are exposed, they can bring it back into the community," said Keenan.

Court documents state in a 2-week period, the number of cases inside Maricopa County jails sky-rocketed from 6 to 313, which is an exponential increase of 5,000%. As of June 9, court documents state only 850 tests had been administered inside the jails, even though the population exceeded 4,500 inmates.

Allegations against the county include not enough testing or screening of newly booked detainees, inadequate testing of inmates, inadequate protections for medically vulnerable inmates, no social distancing measures in place in the housing units, at meals times, and during transports, and the failure to provide sufficient personal protective equipment such as masks to all inmates, along with the failure to educate inmates about the virus and prevention of it.

Court documents state, "the dramatic outbreak at the Maricopa County jails proves the need for immediate and significant public health interventions." The ACLU seeks the immediate release of those inmates who are disabled and medically fragile. Keenan points out, it is important to remember many of these inmates have not been found guilty of any crime, they are being held in jail until the date of their trial. Many of them have been waiting for their day in court for months.

"They're in there because they cannot afford to pay the money to bail out," said Keenan.

The complaint urges for quick action from the courts because there is "no time to spare".

A separate complaint filed by the ACLU highlights serious health and safety conditions inside private prisons run by Core Civic, in Pinal County. The ACLU is representing five detainees housed in Core Civic facilities. Two of them are immigrant mothers diagnosed with cancer.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshall's office also being sued, along with Core Civic.

In the complaint attorneys state, "while COVID-19 has drastically altered life for most Arizonans, nothing has changed inside our jails and private prisons."

Court documents outline safety concerns detainees say they are behind bars with no way to protect themselves from the virus. The complaint claims "up to 14 people crammed into a cell, stacked on bunk beds against a wall."

"There is also a lack of access to appropriate cleaning supplies," said Keenan.

Court documents stated soap inside the facility was scarce, and disinfecting products all but non-existent. Inmates seeing others around them with COVID-19 symptoms were so worried about contracting the virus, they had "resorted to wiping down communal telephones with T-shirts or watered-down menstrual pads" in order to protect themselves.

ABC15 has reached out to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Core Civic to get a response to these allegations.

A county spokeswoman says they cannot comment on pending litigation, but she did send ABC15 a copy of a 9-page PowerPoint the county released last month, outlining some of the steps they have taken to protect inmates and corrections officers.

The PowerPoint stated N-95 masks were always in stock, surgical masks for inmate and staff were added and distributed in March, and the county had spent more than $420,000 on personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies from February to July.

In court documents, ACLU attorneys state "the exploding number of infections tells a different story" inside Maricopa county jails.

You can read copies of the two complaints here and here and view the county's PowerPoint presentation here.

CoreCivic sent the following response to our requests:

CoreCivic is working hard to protect our employees, those entrusted to our care, and our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have a Coronavirus Medical Action Plan in place at each of our facilities, which we’ve been working on since January. This plan includes:

  • Having medical staff participate in the intake process to identify those who are deemed high-risk of being infected with or contracting COVID-19;
  • Isolating those who are deemed high-risk as needed; and
  • Working with local and state health departments to conduct appropriate testing.

All of our facilities are actively promoting the following three health habits for inmates, detainees and residents, as well as staff: regular hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette (coughing or sneezing into a sleeve or tissue), and avoiding touching one’s face. We also encourage the practice of social distancing for all individuals within our facilities.

Our health services administrators cooperate fully with local and state health departments, and our protocols mirror local, state, and federal recommendations. Our plan and practices build on the extensive work we do every day to run clean, healthy and safe facilities. We appreciate the hard work and dedication of all our medical staff during this time.

We have asked all of our employees to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases by adhering to the following recommendations:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Follow the CDC's recommendations for using a facemask.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.


All employees are screened upon entering a CoreCivic facility. Procedures are specific to correctional and detention facilities, designed to prevent the introduction and spread of the COVID-19 virus. These steps include answering a screening questionnaire related to symptoms of infection, and a safe temperature check.

Social Distancing

Staff routinely encourage appropriate social distancing and model that behavior for those in our care. Social distancing is encouraged through regular town hall meetings, posted flyers, information presented over the closed circuit television system, and the routine instruction of staff all serve to encourage those known effective steps to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

Cleaning and Disinfecting Practices

In all of our CoreCivic facilities, staff adhere to the CDC recommendations for cleaning and disinfection during the COVID-19 response. This will include cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, objects and shared equipment that are frequently touched or used by staff members and those entrusted to our care. Our facilities use commercial cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants that are effective against the virus that causes COVID-19, following label instructions to ensure their safe and effective use. We have adequate supplies to support these intensified cleaning and disinfecting practices.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, face masks are provided to all staff and those in our care. Disposable gloves are readily available for staff conducting searches and handling property. Staff working at the front lobby screening sites wear personal protective equipment (PPE).