Maricopa County Jails See Explosion in COVID-19 Cases

4th Avenue Jail in Maricopa County

FILE - This March 21, 2020 file photo shows the Maricopa County 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix. In an effort to guard against the risks of COVID-19, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone has raised the possibility of getting courts to temporarily suspend the sentences of nonviolent misdemeanor inmates who are allowed to leave jail to go to work. Last week, Penzone said he wouldn't prematurely release inmates without court orders. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

By Jessica Swarner

June 10, 2020

Testing in the Maricopa County jails has been increasing, but the ACLU says it’s not enough.

While COVID-19 cases are exploding across the state, jails in Maricopa County are seeing an outbreak. 

On Thursday, the jails reported 30 cases out of their 4,400 inmates. By Monday, that number had skyrocketed to 203 cases. 

State prisons have seen about the same number of cases – 242 – but they have over 40,000 inmates in the system. Seven of those inmates have apparently died from the virus. 

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The virus is also a problem for employees. Nineteen Maricopa County detention officers have tested positive, while 111 state corrections officers have self-reported positive COVID-19 diagnoses. 

There have been positive tests among inmates at four of the county’s five jails, though the county won’t reveal which jails have had an outbreak. 

According to the state health department, there are 31 jails, prisons, and other detention facilities that have seen at least one case. 

Arizona as a whole has been seeing a resurgence in cases, hitting daily case records multiple times in recent week.

More Testing Needed

Testing in the Maricopa County jails has been increasing, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says it’s not enough until all inmates in the system are tested and the results are publicly released. 

Fields Moseley, a spokesman for the county agency that specializes in providing health care to inmates, said mass testing is one of several options being considered by officials but it won’t be implemented unless health officials conclude it’s necessary. 

Sheriff Paul Penzone’s office, which operates the county’s jails, responded to the ACLU saying local authorities “have been very transparent regarding testing and the procedures in place to prevent the spread of the virus.” 

Penzone also said when an inmate tests positive, everyone else in their pod will be tested and quarantined. Other measures to reduce spread include screening all suspects during booking, suspending visitation, providing face masks to inmates and employees, and limiting the movement of inmates.

As for staff, the sheriff’s office is working to identify those who may have had contact with inmates who contracted the virus.

A Reduced Population 

The jails are seeing outbreaks despite an effort to reduce their populations toward the beginning of the pandemic. 

The county’s number of jail inmates has been reduced 37% from 7,100 in December to more than 4,400 on Tuesday.

The reductions were made through a series of measures, such as the courts temporarily suspending the sentences of inmates who were allowed to leave jail to go to work and police agencies citing and releasing nonviolent suspects rather than taking them into custody.

Money saved from reducing the jail population played a big role in Phoenix City Council deciding Monday to fully fund a civilian oversight body for the police. 

Despite only allocating $400,000 for the $3 million program at first, councilmembers later determined the programs could be funded with pandemic-related savings, including diminished jail operations and the closure of other services like community pools. 

However, recent protests against police brutality have led to a large number of people being processed through jails in the Phoenix area. Over the last weekend of May, about 300 people were arrested

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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