The Arizona Department of Corrections has reversed course and will now allow employees to wear protective masks inside the prisons.
Director David Shinn sent an email Friday morning to confirm the policy switch.
“We have just been notified of the impending direction CDC will be issuing recommendations for people to wear a non-medical mask (non-PPE) upon leaving home,” Shinn wrote.
He added, “This will further reduce the potential transmission exposure our staff presents to the inmate population.”
The reversal comes almost a full week after a lieutenant filed a whistleblower complaint about Shinn forbidding staff from wearing masks and the morning after the main officers union told staff to defy the director’s order.
“Wear the mask. We will defend you. If they make you take the mask off, I swear I will defend you whether you are a member or not,” said Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Several officers, support workers, counselors, and even nurses told ABC15 that prison administrators ordered them to remove the masks they brought from home.
“I brought my own mask from home. And I was told I could not wear my mask,” according to a nurse in the Alhambra intake facility, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. “(They told me) it’s going to scare the inmates. And that it’s not evidence-based to be wearing a mask.”
Multiple officers in multiple prison complexes said they received the same explanation, including Beverly Laidlow, a drug addiction counselor in the private Red Rock prison in Eloy.
“They told me to take it off,” she said. “One of the reasons I heard was it scares the inmates… I don’t get me scaring grown adults by having a mask on.”
Laidlow said she has asthma and other respiratory issues. For her job, she has to sit with groups of inmates in a room.
“It’s really, to me, putting me in a dangerous situation where I have to put my life and my safety versus going to work,” Laidlow said.
Laidlow was told to take off the mask or go home and be forced to take time off.
It’s an ultimatum that was given to many workers recently.
"The staff are livid. They’ve had enough,” Garcia said.
ABC15 has heard from hundreds of prison insiders, including officers and inmate families. The main complaint has been a lack of transparency and perceived concern about the seriousness of COVID-19.
The department has released only limited statistics about coronavirus testing.
In the most recent update on April 1, officials said 34 inmates had been tested with 29 negative results and five pending.
The same day, ABC15 confirmed there were at least three department employees who had tested positive or were presumed positive. Those figures have not been reported publicly, and many staff found out from watching the news.
One of the positive cases involved an officer at the Winslow prison complex.
The morning after the news broke, Winslow’s warden sent an all-staff email confirming the information and attacking ABC15.
“I know that News15 put the story out last night but they are not our friends they do not care about the staff and who was affected they are only looking for a big story, so again I am sorry for the confusion and delay,” said Warden John Mattos.
Mattos didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
“If it wasn’t for the media, look at what they just did, they will hide, hide, hide. And then try to deny, deny, deny,” Garcia said. “It’s too late. Winslow is a very small community…That infection is probably everywhere.”
Arizona’s prison system has more than 42,000 inmates and 9,000 employees. The risk of spread in and out of the facilities is high.
ABC15 obtained internal emails and documents showing that as of April 1, only 30 percent of symptomatic inmates had been tested, and 358 employees had been turned away from work due to health screening at the prison gates.
Attorneys in a long-standing prison healthcare lawsuit have also been blocked from receiving timely information.
The Prison Law Office and ACLU, which are court-appointed representatives for every inmate’s healthcare, had to file a motion in federal court to get the names and treatment of all tested inmates.
The judge agreed with the organizations and scolded the state for blocking that information.
Judge Roslyn Silver called the state’s arguments against releasing the info “troubling” and wrote that it “may reflect a failure to accept what could be a grave threat.”
“I don’t understand the rationale of DOC’s lack of transparency at all,” said Rep. Diego Rodriguez. “It really frightens us.”
Rodriguez and three other democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the department this week, seeking more information about testing and preparations for a potential outbreak.
Officials have not yet responded.
“Time becomes such an important factor,” Rodriguez said. “Every second of time that goes by where this information is not shared, it could have catastrophic effects down the line. I am very disappointed in the tone the director has adopted.”
Rodriguez is specifically speaking about an email Director Shinn sent to advocate Donna Hamm on March 31.
The email was shared with ABC15 and on social media.
“Donna - regrettably it appears that many are anxious to see us fail. While I will never understand why, I am pleased to report we have ZERO positive cases to date… While I cannot guarantee success forever, it oddly appears the best place to live presently is in one of our institutions.”
Rodriguez finds the comments troubling, especially considering the prison system’s long-standing failures in providing a constitutional level of healthcare.
“Just the tone, quite frankly, the arrogance of that statement that prison might be the safest place at this moment, it’s mind-boggling that an appointed official in charge of a billion-dollar department facing a pandemic would make that type of statement,” Rodriguez said. “At a minimum, it’s reckless. I think it’s arrogant.”
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.