ACLU Sues Sheriff Penzone Over COVID-19 Spike in Jails

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone and Maricopa County, alleging a failure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in county jails and properly care for inmates who are vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

The class-action lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court today on behalf of current inmates in Maricopa County jails and Puente Human Rights Movement, a nonprofit advocacy organization, claims that jail staff are failing to test and screen new and current inmates for COVID-19, provide proper sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment, and enable proper social distancing among inmates. Additionally, the filing alleges that the county isn't sufficiently protecting medically vulnerable and disabled inmates from exposure to the coronavirus. (The filing also notes that only 870 tests have been administered in the jails, despite the inmate population sitting at around 4,500.)

"In just two weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases has skyrocketed from six to 313 — an exponential increase of more than 5,000 percent," the lawsuit states. "While Maricopa County and Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone have claimed to be implementing measures sufficient to contain the virus at the facilities ... the exploding number of infections tells a different story. In fact, Defendants have not instituted even the most basic safeguards for incarcerated persons and staff."

The plaintiffs, per the filing, are seeking: the immediate release of medically vulnerable or disabled inmates who are awaiting trial and being held on bonds that they can't afford; a process to determine potential releases for other medically vulnerable inmates; and changes to jail staff protocols and procedures to guard against the spread of COVID-19.

"Absent intervention from the Court to align the operation of Maricopa County jails with public health principles — first and foremost, through the release of as many medically vulnerable detainees as reasonable, but also through improved social distancing, testing, treatment, education, hygiene, and sanitation protocols for all others — incarcerated persons, jail staff, and community will face devastating, and in some cases, deadly, irreparable harm," the filing states. "The dramatic outbreak at Maricopa County jails proves the need for immediate and significant public health interventions."

In an email to New Times, Norma Gutierrez-Deorta, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, declined to comment on the "pending litigation."

"A couple weeks ago we sent a demand letter to the sheriff demanding that he start universally testing everyone in the jails," Jared Keenan, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, told New Times. "The response was sort of like 'no, we’re not doing that.' And then since then the number of cases has exploded."

"We’ve been speaking to our clients and others in the jails and we’re hearing, basically, that the measures that are taken are woefully inadequate," he added. "The cleaning supplies are inadequate, there’s no access to hand sanitizers ... The staff aren't cleaning the cells — it’s the prisoners themselves that are cleaning them."

The lawsuit also cites guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control for how correctional facilities can mitigate the risk of severe COVID-19 outbreaks, such as requiring temperature checks for all new inmates at booking, rearranging bunks to ensure six feet of distance between inmates, providing ample sanitation supplies, and quarantining close contacts of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases.

"The Maricopa County jails do not adequately provide the mitigation measures that public health experts and the CDC recommend," the filing states.

Maricopa County is also allegedly only testing symptomatic inmates, despite statements from jail officials to the contrary, the lawsuit claims. The practice prevents officials from knowing the full-scope of COVID-19 outbreaks in the facilities, the filing argues.

"On June 5, Maricopa County jails' Medical Director stated to the media that the county is now also testing asymptomatic direct contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19. However, this has not actually been implemented," the lawsuit claims.

Additionally, inmates who report COVID-19 symptoms and are tested or test positive are regularly placed in an isolation pod akin to punitive segregation, the lawsuit adds. While in isolation, inmates are reportedly confined to the cell for 24 hours a day and are allowed to leave for "1 hour every three days to shower or take a walk," and are fed two meals a day lacking in nutritional value, making it "difficult for them to fight off" a COVID-19 infection. The measures result in inmates opting not to report symptoms, the lawsuit argues. Other inmates have reportedly declined to seek medical attention because of the financial cost and the "jails' refusal to waive co-pays for COVID-related screening and treatment."

"Given the congregate setting at the Maricopa County jails, anything short of offering testing for every individual creates an unreasonable risk of transmission and spread of a potentially fatal infection and disease," the lawsuit states. "This is evident given the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases at the Maricopa County jails in just the past two weeks."

The lawsuit also claims that jail staff have failed to protect medically vulnerable inmates, such as housing them with inmates whose COVID-19 status is unknown.

"Defendants have not regularly screened medically vulnerable incarcerated persons for symptoms and fevers, even when they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 or have even tested positive for COVID-19," the filing states.

The full complaint is embedded below.