Inside Maricopa County's jail system, a winter surge of COVID-19 cases, coupled with a major staffing shortage, is causing renewed chaos in an already strained operation.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has implemented new emergency rules in at least one of its five jails amid rapid staff attrition and high COVID-19 transmission, according to internal emails and data obtained by Phoenix New Times.
The documents illuminate a worsening problem in the county's jails, which are already facing scrutiny for their chaotic and sometimes draconian COVID-19 response, the subject of an ongoing class-action lawsuit being waged by The American Civil Liberties Union.
“Ever since I stepped in here, I've experienced nothing but hell,” wrote Bakr Omar, who is serving a 90-day sentence for a robbery charge, in a message to New Times.
The 20-year old is incarcerated at Watkins Jail just southwest of downtown Phoenix, and one of about 400 people in the jails that have tested positive for COVID-19 in January. There are currently 6,240 people incarcerated across the county's jails.
Omar is just one of several people inside who detailed to New Times how a lack of staff has aggravated poor conditions. It has been difficult to receive basic medical care when needed, he said. Even basic health request forms are difficult to obtain.
As of Wednesday, Omar was quarantined in a single jail cell packed in with nine other men. Those in quarantine are not allowed to leave the cell except to shower — and often can only do so once every four or five days.
Last week, Maricopa County's primary detention facility in downtown Phoenix, the Fourth Avenue Jail, introduced a new "emergency dayroom plan" to help curb the spread of COVID-19 with fewer workers on the job, according to an email obtained by New Times.
The new protocol requires only one guard to supervise more than a dozen people. Normally, that job would take two guards. The new policy took effect on January 11 and will continue "until further notice."
Also under the new plan, some people in custody will spend dramatically less time in the "dayroom" and are only allowed to leave their jail cells for up to four hours each day. Typically, incarcerated people may spend between eight to 16 hours outside of their cells.
The changes have sparked concerns among guards at the downtown Phoenix detention center, according to one MCSO employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Guards are worried that the plan poses a safety risk for both detention officers and those in custody, the source said, as it cuts down the number of guards available to respond to a problem.
The top brass responsible for Maricopa County's jail system, Sheriff Paul Penzone, as well as custody chief Barry Roska, declined interviews for this story.
"A safe and secure jail system for the staff and community members who work, reside or pass through our jail network has always been a top priority of the Office," wrote MCSO spokesperson Calbert Gillett in an emailed response to questions from New Times.
As for the emergency plan, it “represents a temporary action but not a permanent operational change,” which was developed by “one jail and the unique situational needs of their facility at a given moment in time" Gillett wrote.
MCSO’s staffing problems are longstanding, though, and the agency has taken some steps to address them, including a $3,000 sign-on bonus.
But the problem is getting worse.
At the end of October, the sheriff’s office submitted a request for the National Guard to assist with staffing in its jails, citing “critical staffing levels across multiple departments.”
“Multiple jails are reaching maximum capacity with manpower shortages,” the request said, “causing the Sheriff’s Office to use badged field personnel to fill vacancies.”
The Arizona National Guard and Maricopa County officials confirmed to New Times that MCSO's request was ultimately withdrawn and that no Guard members are currently assisting in the jail system.
But since that initial request, more than 100 MCSO employees have departed the agency, bringing overall staffing numbers — around 3,100 — to their lowest levels in two years, according to monthly internal staffing data reviewed by New Times.
The attrition is particularly pronounced within county jails, which have lost around 9 percent of their staff since the beginning of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Correctional Health Services, which provides medical care in for the jails, currently is at 21.7 percent vacancy, according to the county. Officials said the staffing gaps are being covered in part by overtime hours and contractors.
In 2021, Maricopa County paid an additional $4.7 million in detention salaries, benefits and overtime compared to 2020.
In less than a month between the first week of December 2021 and January 2022, 124 employees at the county's sheriff's office contracted COVID-19 or about 4 percent of the workforce, according to a recent email obtained by New Times. Most of those people who got sick work in county jails.
It all has taken a toll on those inside.
Jerod Stevenson was booked into Watkins Jail at the beginning of January after pleading guilty to prohibited possession of a firearm. He had been caught carrying a handgun, despite a prior felony drug charge.
Soon after, he tested positive for COVID-19.
The cell holds ten men and, in the corner, there's a sink and toilet. In messages to New Times from his tablet issued by the jail, Stevenson described a grueling lockdown. No one in his quarantined cell was permitted to leave, except to shower, just as in Omar's case. The men have not been provided any soap or hand sanitizer, Stevenson said.
“Unsanitary to say the least,” he said.
Three other men quarantined in Watkins gave similar accounts to New Times. One said he had not been given a change of clothes in more than a week.
The accounts were familiar to Jared Keenan, a staff attorney with ACLU Arizona, who is working on the litigation against MCSO for its poor COVID-19 protocols. The suit, filed in June 2020, alleges that MCSO failed to provide adequate sanitary supplies or protect vulnerable people in custody from contracting COVID-19.
The new emergency protocol, he said, was "very concerning," and an example of how commonly "folks incarcerated end up being punished for things that are really out of their control."
Furthermore, when COVID-19 quarantine causes people in custody to lose coveted privileges or access to basic hygiene, Keenan said, it can act as a deterrent — making others less likely to report that they are sick or believe that they were exposed to the virus.
That, in turn, can increase spread, Keenan said.
"This disincentive to tell jail staff that you're feeling sick has existed throughout the pandemic and I think, if anything, is getting worse, now that numbers are going up and the staffing situation is quite problematic," he said.
The ACLU is still fighting to get relief for its clients in court. So far, a judge has declined to take immediate action.
For those inside, it's still a waiting game.