When a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections told the Arizona Republic that "soap and water is readily available for staff and inmates" and that "hand sanitizer is available for staff," corrections officers had no idea what he was talking about.
"Hand sanitizer? I can't even find gloves," wrote one corrections officer (CO) in a private Facebook group of corrections officers, selections of which were obtained by Phoenix New Times, in response to a question posed by another CO with a last name of Ryan.
"Bill Lamoreaux (department spokesperson) tells the news that hand sanitizer is available for staff," Ryan wrote. "I haven't seen any at Cook unit in Eyman. Do any units have hand sanitizer available for staff?"
"The one in my pocket," one person responded, adding a smiley-face emoji. More people weighed in. No one had seen any hand sanitizer. The spokesperson, who has yet to reply to requests from New Times, was wrong.
The chats show how ill-prepared the state's prison system is for potential cases of the new coronavirus among inmates, based on the very people who work there on a daily basis. They're displaying callous gallows humor, guessing at which prison or unit would have the first case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
"Anyone wanna throw out odds on which complex introduces the coronavirus to the department," one CO wrote, tacking on three teary emojis — and members of the group were happy to oblige, saying where they thought it'd appear first, and how, such as through visitation.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not appear to have any guidance specific to correctional facilities and COVID-19 management.
Other states — not Arizona, which has no plan for dealing with potential cases in its incarcerated population — rely on CDC guidance for long-term care facilities and nursing homes, and for emergency personnel.
The CDC's guidelines for long-term care facilities say that they should have supplies of face masks and respirators. They need alcohol-based sanitizer available, and personal protective equipment, which in addition to masks includes gowns, gloves, and face shields or goggles.
In the chats, COs said that the Arizona Department of Corrections had no close-fitting N95 masks. One said that he had asked his supervisor for a mask, not wanting to potentially bring the virus home to his family.
"He proceeds to tell me that it is unnecessary for me to have a mask and per the DW [deputy warden] We're not issuing any mask to anybody," one CO wrote.
When he called the deputy warden asking for a mask, she told him it was unnecessary and she would not be dispensing any masks.
When one person asked whether anyone knew if the department had enough N95 masks for employees, one CO — the one who suggested throwing out odds on which prison would get hit first — said he'd been told "we have some. But not enough for everyone."
Another said that the prison where they worked would be fitting just 20 percent of staff.
At one unit at Eyman prison, a CO said that hand sanitizer had been ordered by the medical unit, but it was the wrong one — antibacterial, not antiviral. (The new coronavirus is, as its name suggests, a virus.)
Others worried that visitors coming in sick and potentially carrying the new coronavirus could infect staff or inmates, apparently before the Department of Corrections decided on Friday to suspend all visits.
"We have over 1300 inmates on our yard," one CO wrote. "I'm in visitation and people come in sick all the time."
Another concurred, "i'm visitation too and yeah they come sick and don't care."
On Wednesday, the Department of Corrections announced that it would waive a $4 copay for medical care for any inmates with flu or cold-like symptoms.
It said it would also "provide free hand soap to all inmates upon request, effective immediately," and that the department had ceased "all routine internal movement of inmates across all Arizona Prison Complexes."
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