PHOENIX — The Arizona Department of Corrections is wrongly citing state and federal privacy laws as an explanation for withholding information about the number of prison officers who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a first amendment and public records attorney.
“It’s ridiculous,” said attorney Dan Barr. “It’s not infringing on anybody’s privacy. And it’s unquestionably in everybody’s best interest.”
This week, ABC15 asked the department for the number of officers who have known positive results for coronavirus and whether the department planned to publicly post that information like other states.
In response, a corrections department spokesperson sent a statement.
“Consistent with federal and state laws and ADHS, we have a commitment to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and preserve the privacy of our employee’s personal health information.”
But Barr said no laws exist that prevent the release of basic numbers and locations of positive tests.
"It’s really a no-brainer. There’s no real other side to this issue," Barr said.
In fact, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office issued a legal opinion on March 24 that found releasing information about numbers and locations of state employees is not only proper, it’s also in the best interest of the public.
ABC15 interviewed an officer inside the state’s Florence prison complex who has tested positive for COVID-19.
The officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said there are five officers just in their unit that are positive.
“We’re dropping like flies at work,” the officer said. “I think we’re all going to get it. It’s just a matter of when because as officers we all work close together.”
Carlos Garcia, the executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, said he can confirm 20 officers across the state prison system who have tested positive.
But Garcia believes there are many more considering the number of officers who aren’t members of the union or haven’t been tested because it isn’t required or funded by the department.
The Department of Corrections did not respond to an interview request with Director David Shinn on Wednesday.
However, on Tuesday, Shinn spoke with KTAR’s Mike Broomhead, who asked about the number of positive officers.
Shinn admitted some officers have tested positive but claimed he didn’t know the total number.
“Regretfully, I do not have total staff numbers,” Shinn said. “I am working to obtain that information. And I believe we will be talking about those things as a state enterprise.”
The Governor’s Office released the following statement Wednesday night in response to ABC15 inquiries:
"As an employer, the state has a responsibility to protect the privacy of our employee's personal healthcare records. Consistent with the legal analysis you cited, our agencies are prohibited from disclosing information that would reveal an employee's identity or confidential medical information. We appreciate the concern and request for disclosure. ADCRR has assured us they will consider releasing that information if (or in a worst-case scenario, when) cases reach a level that would allow for aggregate data to be released in a manner that is statistically assured to prevent from identifying a specific employee."
On Wednesday, the prison system saw it’s largest increase in positive results for inmates. The number claimed from 10 to 17 in the past day.
So far, only 91 inmates out of 41,674 have been tested.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.