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Arizona whistleblower complaint details DOC director barring use of protective masks

Prison jail bars
Posted at 10:42 AM, Mar 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-01 01:01:09-04

An Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry lieutenant has filed a whisteblower complaint claiming that Director David Shinn has forbidden staff from wearing masks and other protective equipment in the state prisons.

The complaint filed by Lt. Mark Hasz was signed March 26 and sent Tuesday morning to Shinn, Governor Doug Ducey’s office, and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ.

Hasz claimed Shinn personally told staff during a townhall meeting at Lewis Prison last week that they couldn’t wear their own PPE (personal protective equipment).

“I was shocked at the response,” Hasz’s complaint states. “Director Shinn confirmed that he had given the order forbidding staff from bringing in and wearing their own PPE.”

Hasz also said Shinn gave the order because he believed the masks would scare the inmates.

“The reasoning is ridiculous and Director Shinn’s decision is putting the health of the staff, inmates and the general public at increased risk,” according to the complaint.

For weeks, ABC15 has reported on the growing concern about the lack of essential cleaning and protective equipment for staff and inmates.

On March 25, an officer inside the prison’s Alhambra intake unit, located in Phoenix, told ABC15 that staff were forced to come in close contact with quarantined inmates for hours.

Those quarantined inmates are kept about 25 to a single room for 14 days while transitioning from jails to prison.

“(The room) is 40 by 23 feet. They’re all packed. It’s uncomfortable for them, and it’s uncomfortable for us,” said one officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “We have to work there. We have to feed them. We cannot wear masks… We’re around them the whole eight hours. Some officers are working 16 hours.”

The officer continued, “I just see everyone coughing, and you know a bunch of inmates in there. Just coughing. Some of them stated they were sick, and you know they had symptoms of the flu. They weren’t feeling good, and they were packed back there.”

Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, has repeatedly sent messages to state officials about the lack of protective equipment.

He said most of those messages have been ignored or brushed aside.

In a statement to ABC15 last week, prison officials said the lack of PPE is not unique and across the country corrections departments are in short supply.

“According to the CDC, masks are only to be worn by patients with the virus, and medical professionals treating those patients,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “The best advice by the CDC and ADHS is to wash hands frequently and wipe down common areas.”

The whistleblower complaint stunned Rep. Kirsten Engel.

“If that’s true that is shocking,” Engel said. “That is a really high concern. That shows we just can’t have confidence they are doing the right thing. And that is really scary.”

Engel and three other state lawmakers, Reps. Diego Rodriguez, Domingo Degrazia, and Jennifer Pawlik, sent a letter to prison officials this week demanding to know more about the department’s plans and preparations for an outbreak.

“The main purpose is really to tell the department that the public needs to know. It’s been way too much of a black box,” Engel said. “Otherwise it’s just rumor and innuendo and everybody is just in the dark.”

Even attorneys who are court-appointed to represent every state inmate in regards to healthcare are struggling to get timely and accurate information.

“We had asked the department of corrections to tell us the names of all of the people who are incarcerated in the prison that they have tested for COVID-19, and the state is refusing to provide us with that information,” said Corene Kendrick, an attorney with the Prison Law Office.

Kendrick has filed a motion with a federal judge, who is overseeing the class-action lawsuit brought by the Prison Law Office and ACLU.

She hopes the judge will order the state to provide more information, especially since she learned the most recent number of tested inmates from an ABC15 report last week.

“There’s such a shortage of tests right now in the community in Arizona. And the guidelines are so strict for who even gets tested, that if a person is getting tested, then he or she had some pretty serious symptoms,” Kendrick said. “So we want to be able to monitor the condition of the incarcerated people.”

Kendrick, lawmakers, inmates, and officers told ABC15 they don’t feel they are getting accurate and timely information.

The Arizona Department of Corrections lags other states when it comes to posting daily updates, data, and statistics regarding COVID-19.

In the most recent update on Monday, the department announced it reached an agreement with all Arizona county sheriff’s to suspend the intake of newly-convicted jail inmates.

But that announcement and agreement was apparently half-baked.

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone pushed back in a statement saying he had not agreed to those conditions.

“I am highly concerned as we are now required to assume a greater burden in our custody division,” Penzone said. “The consistent process regarding transfer of inmates to the prison system upon sentencing is critical in the management of our inmate population. Imposing this additional burden on the fourth largest jail system in the country will adversely affect safety for our staff and the inmate population. Our relationship is predicated on balance and consistency. This is neither.”

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