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Federal Judge “Troubled” by Arizona Prison Director’s Response to Coronavirus; State Rep Calls it “Reckless”

Court-appointed advocates filed a motion in federal court concerning the Arizona prison director’s response to the coronavirus, which federal Judge Roslyn Silver called “troubling,” writing that it “may reflect a failure to accept what could be a grave threat.”

She wasn’t the only one disturbed by Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry Director David Shinn’s handling of the pandemic. News that at least three Arizona prison guards had tested positive for the coronavirus as of April 1, 2020, did not reach prison staff and the prisoners through the department, but only via TV news.

It wasn’t until the morning after ABC15 broke the news that Winslow prison warden John Mattos sent an all-staff email admitting the details. Still, he criticized the news channel, writing that “they are not our friends” and “are only looking for a big story.”

ABC15 obtained internal emails and documents showing that as of April 1, only 30 percent of symptomatic prisoners had been tested, and that 358 prison employees had been turned away from coming to work because of health screening at the gate.

“I really don’t understand the rationale of DOC’s lack of transparency at all,” said Rep. Diego Rodriguez. “It really frightens us.”

He and other lawmakers sent a letter to the department seeking more information about what it is doing to manage a potential coronavirus outbreak in the prison. “Every second of time that goes by where this information is now shared, it could have catastrophic effects down the line,” he said.

Rodriguez is referring to an email sent March 31 by Director Shinn. Obtained by ABC15, it stated in part, “I am pleased to report we have ZERO positive cases to date.... While I cannot guarantee success forever, it oddly appears the best place to live presently is in one of our institutions.”

Rodriguez called the email “reckless,” saying, “Just the tone, quite frankly, the arrogance of that statement that prison might be the safest place at this moment, it’s mind-boggling that an appointed official in charge of a billion-dollar department facing a pandemic would make that type of statement.”

Shinn was also the subject of a whistleblower complaint filed on March 26 by Lt. Mark Hasz, complaining that the director ordered prison employees to remove masks they brought from home so as not to frighten prisoners. “While the rest of the country is engaged in social distancing, [prison] employees, as part of their job, must come into close personal contact with hundreds of inmates on a daily basis,” Hasz wrote. He warned that once the coronavirus enters the prison system, it will spread swiftly among prisoners, prison staff and their families.

On April 3, Shinn issued an email allowing staff to wear masks. “We have just been notified of the impending direction CDC will be issuing recommendations for people to wear non-medical mask (non-PPE) upon leaving home,” he wrote. “This will further reduce the potential transmission exposure our staff presents to the inmate population.” 



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