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Arizona reports more than 1,100 coronavirus cases behind bars

Arizona highway sign urging mask-wearing
The Arizona Department of Transportation posts new signage along highways urging the public to wear masks because of the coronavirus.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The combined total of county jail inmates, state prisoners and federal immigration detainees in Arizona who have tested positive for the coronavirus has surpassed 1,100 cases.

Authorities report 496 positive cases among inmates in county jails, 318 among state prisoners and 317 among immigration detainees. More than 90% of the county jail cases came in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, the state’s biggest city.

A reported 369 employees at jails, prisons and immigration detention centers in Arizona also have tested positive.

Officials attribute the rising numbers over the last month to more testing and contact tracing. Critics say the figures also are higher because the virus is spreading rapidly at corrections facilities, where people who live in close quarters often are unable to practice social distancing.

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“Once it’s in the jails, it’s very difficult to stop,” said Jared Keenan, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which has filed suit against Maricopa County seeking the release of medically vulnerable and disabled inmates who can’t afford bail.

Critics say the government was unprepared to protect incarcerated and detained people from the virus, while officials maintain they’re following government’s recommendations for protecting inmates and employees.

The death was the first coronavirus-linked fatality recorded by Avenal State Prison, which has reported 928 cases of the virus among its population.

Officials say they are screening all people coming into facilities, providing cleaning supplies to inmates and detainees, have set up quarantine areas and reduced the overall size of county jail populations. The reductions were made through a series of steps, such as police agencies making fewer arrests and the courts temporarily suspending the sentences of inmates who were allowed to leave jail to go to work.

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Critics say inmates often can’t practice social distancing while in lunch and medication lines, don’t have enough cleaning supplies to protect themselves and aren’t being given adequate instructions on guarding against the coronavirus.

Maricopa County and its sheriff’s office both declined to comment on criticism that the county wasn’t doing enough to protect inmates.

All state corrections employees are being tested for the virus, and officials announced plans last week to test all state prisoners. Maricopa County officials are considering whether to test all county jail inmates.

After a two-month hold on the intake of new inmates amid the coronavirus pandemic, California’s prisons are expected to resume processing next week.

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Corrections officials said there have been four confirmed and five suspected deaths from COVID-19 among state prisoners.

Arizona has emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot since Republican Gov. Doug Ducey lifted his stay-home orders in mid-May. President Trump is set to visit the state Tuesday for a rally in Phoenix, among other stops.

Arizona hit a daily record of 3,246 new coronavirus cases Friday. The state’s surge in additional cases in the past week set daily records for hospitalizations, ventilator use and use of intensive care beds for coronavirus patients.


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