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ACLU Files Lawsuit Against CoreCivic Prison in Arizona over COVID-19 Failures

by Dale Chappell

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a federal lawsuit against a private prison run by CoreCivic in Florence, Arizona, claiming that staff has failed to protect its prisoners and the community from the coronavirus, according to a story in The Appeal and court records.

According to papers filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on May 9, 2020, CoreCivic has made it impossible for prisoners to adhere to state-mandated “social distancing” because of overcrowding, failed to properly quarantine prisoners suspected of having the coronavirus and new prisoners coming into the prison, failed to test prisoners who have shown symptoms for coronavirus, lied to prisoners about there being no COVID-19 cases in the prison, refused to give prisoners masks and made them share masks, and continues to use prison labor to run CoreCivic’s factory without any precautions.

The five prisoners who filed the lawsuit said they have numerous medical conditions putting them at high risk of death from COVID-19. Some also have cancer that CoreCivic has left untreated since their incarceration months ago, putting them at further risk of serious illness. Some of the prisoners are sitting in jail on minor charges, such as violating halfway house rules for possessing tobacco.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that CoreCivic puts as many as 14 prisoners in one cell with bunks just two feet apart. This, the papers say, is in violation of the state’s March 30 mandate that people remain at least 6 feet from each other, citing World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Quarantine, the lawsuit alleges, is poorly done, if at all. When new prisoners come into the facility, they’re placed in a room together without any masks for 14 days. Sometime quarantined prisoners have been released to the general population “by mistake” and returned to quarantine, potentially exposing the general population to COVID-19.

When staff does provide masks, the lawsuit said, there’s not enough to go around, and they’re ineffective against the virus. Staff make prisoner share masks when they have to leave the pod, and they are not required to wear masks in the pod. It also claims that staff mocks prisoners who wear masks, telling them they “don’t work against the virus.”

All five prisoners have filed numerous “emergency” administrative remedies, but only one got a reply from a unit manager who said that there were no COVID-19 cases in the prison and everything was “fine.” He said they were just “rumors.”

The lawsuit alleges that CoreCivic staff have been “deliberately indifferent” to the risk COVID-19 poses to their health — that is, prison staff are aware of the risks but have done nothing about addressing those risks. The prisoners allege due process rights violations under the Fifth Amendment, and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment because, as the U.S. Supreme Court held in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), “the government and its officials are not free to let the state of nature take its course.”

The lawsuit asks the Court to certify it as a “class-action” to allow all prisoners at the CoreCivic prison to join. They’re also asking that the Court appoint “an independent Rule 706 expert” to determine whether CoreCivic has been taking proper steps in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU in New York, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix, Arizona, through Perkins Coie LLP out of Phoenix. It names Kris Kline, the warden of the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex, as well as the U.S. Marshal’s Service (“USMS”) and the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The private prison run by CoreCivic houses prisoners for the USMS and the BOP.

A spokesman for the USMS said in a statement, “These facilities are responsible for the medical care that USMS prisoners receive, and they work closely with state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure that infectious diseases are promptly identified and treated. All training and protocols, quarantine decisions or policy adjustments are made at the facility level.”

A spokesman for CoreCivic refused to respond, but did say that the prison was screening its employees for COVID-19 symptoms and asking staff to “encourage appropriate social distancing” and providing them with face masks.

“I am very scared,” Maria Guadalupe Lucero-Gonzalez, one of the prisoner-plaintiffs, said. “I am in delicate health and am trying to survive in these difficult conditions” at the CoreCivic prison. Lucero is being detained at the private prison after violating her supervised release terms for re-entering the United States.

“What we are hearing is incredibly dire,” said Chase Strangio, staff attorney with the ACLU. “If there’s no way in this structure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, then there would need to be some reduction in the population.” See: Lucero-Gonzalez v. Kline, USDC (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:20-cv-00901. 


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Related legal case

Lucero-Gonzalez v. Kline