PHOENIX — Many officers inside Arizona prisons are raising concerns about a lack of personal protective equipment to prevent coronavirus exposure and feel that administrators aren’t taking their concerns seriously.
Union leaders have sent a series of emails to Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry Director David Shinn and the Governor’s Office in the past week lamenting the lack of gloves, cleaning supplies, and masks.
“Your administration advised the media and the public that you are now requiring and mandating deep cleanings, but what staff all over the state really ended up getting in reality is bleach in a bottle with no way to even effectively deploy them,” wrote Carlos Garcia, executive director of the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, on March 19. “That’s right. Your staff have no paper towels, no bio hazard suits, not even the cheap paper ones, no masks, no proper cleaning supplies and no extra staff.”
In response, prison officials said Wednesday there is a shortage of protective equipment across the country and correctional 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.”
Officials said that ADCRR currently has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.
However, only seven inmates, an increase of one from Monday, have been tested for the virus. All seven test results are pending.
But multiple officers have told ABC15 that they feel they are regularly in contact with sick and symptomatic inmates, who have not been tested.
“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,” said one officer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, in the state’s Alhambra unit, where inmates are first brought into the prison system.
In Alhambra, the officer said new inmates are placed into 14-day quarantines before getting sent to other prison complexes. Around 25 prisoners share a room and sleep on the floor.
“(The room) it’s 40 by 23 feet. They’re all packed. It’s uncomfortable for them, and it’s uncomfortable for us,” the officer said. “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 said staff other than medical personnel are told they can’t wear masks – a decision that’s come from the director’s office.
“I have children. Many of us have children,” the officer said. “Not to protect ourselves, you know, it’s a lot on us. They’re not letting us use our proper (personal protective equipment.”
Officers, inmates, advocates, attorneys and families are all feeling a growing concern regarding a potential COVID-19 outbreak in the prison system, which has roughly 42,000 inmates and 9,000 employees.
Earlier this month, legal advocates unsuccessfully filed an emergency motion in federal court to force to department to take specific actions to prevent the spread of disease.
But the motion did lead the state to publicly disclose its plan.
Some of the state’s key actions announced last week included:
- A suspension of all visitation, legal and non-legal
- A waiver of co-pays for inmates who need medical attention for cold and flu-like symptoms
- Free hand soap to all inmates upon request
- Weekly deep cleaning of all facilities
- All employees entering prison complexes will undergo disease symptom checks
- Stopped all routine internal movement of inmates across all prison complexes.
On Wednesday, the department also announced it would stop all outside work crews. A decision two days after ABC15 captured video of inmates working non-essential jobs, including minor groundskeeping at the state capitol.
But officials announced one work crew will remain.
Women from the Perryville prison will continue to work at Hickman’s Family Farms, a business owned by a Maricopa County supervisor, and will live onsite until the pandemic has eased.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.