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Prison employees test positive for COVID-19, fraction of sick inmates not tested

Arizona prison inmates
Posted at 6:21 PM, Apr 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-03 23:49:43-04

PHOENIX — There are three Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry employees who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are presumptive positives, the ABC15 Investigators have learned.

Two of the staff members are located in the Tucson prison complex, emails show. Union officials told ABC15 there is a third employee located at the Winslow complex.

The emails also show ADCRR has set up a quarantine area in the Morey Unit of the Lewis Prison complex for inmates who “test positive with mild to moderate COVID-19.”

The news of the employees contracting the coronavirus comes just hours after ABC15 obtained correspondence between top department officials showing nearly 500 combined inmates and staff have been monitored for possible exposure to COVID-19.

But the department has only tested a fraction of those individuals.

The internal statistics and information were sent March 28th and April 1st by Norman Twyford, the department’s emergency preparedness administrator, to other top department officials, including Director David Shinn.

While the department reports no positive cases of COVID-19 for inmates inside its prisons, the documents show only about 30 percent of 113 symptomatic prisoners placed on medical watch have been tested.

In addition, 358 employees have been turned away from work due to health screenings at prison entrances, emails show. So far, 183 of those employees have gone back to work — with many of them returning after days and not weeks of quarantine.

Here’s a copy of the April email sent between top leaders.

Arizona Department of Corrections testing for COVID-19

Prison officials have been criticized in recent weeks for the lack of information released about the department’s preparations and testing for COVID-19.

Lawmakers, advocates, court-appointed healthcare attorneys, and staff have all complained to ABC15 that the department has failed to release accurate and timely information.

On March 30, four Arizona lawmakers sent a letter to the department demanding to know some basic information.

“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,” Rep. Kirsten Engel told ABC15 in an interview. “Otherwise it’s just rumor and innuendo and everybody is just in the dark.”

On Wednesday, the department publicly released its first updated testing statistics in a week.

“Of the more than 42,000 inmates currently housed in ADCRR custody and care, there are no known cases of the COVID-19,” according to an ADC update posted on its website. “Of those inmates evaluated for flu-like symptoms, 34 inmates have been tested for COVID-19, 29 are negative, and 5 test results are currently pending.”

Those narrow statistics are all that the department has released.

In other states, corrections departments have posted daily updates with detailed graphs, tables, and statistics that break down the number of tests and quarantines by individual prisons.

The emails and documents obtained by ABC15 show that the department is regularly tracking this information but has chosen not to disclose it publicly.

Of the 113 inmates who have been placed on medical watch, 23 remain on watch “due to being symptomatic” while the remaining 90 inmates have been “cleared,” records show.

Attorneys for the Prison Law Office and ACLU asked a judge this week to force the department to reveal the names of the tested inmates in order to make sure they’ve received proper medical care.

The legal advocacy organizations have been locked in a long-standing healthcare lawsuit against the department and are court-appointed representatives for every inmate in the state.

However, prison officials have declined to provide the information.

“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,” said Corene Kendrick, and attorney for the Prison Law Office on Tuesday. “So we want to be able to monitor the condition of the incarcerated people.”

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.