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Two-Thirds of Nevada Prisoners Confined in Arizona Private Prison Test Positive for COVID-19

That’s what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nevada said in a July 2020 statement criticizing the “outrageous and disturbing” infection of 69.7 percent of Nevada prisoners confined within an Arizona prison operated by Tennessee-based CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison firms in the country.

The novel coronavirus that causes the disease ravaged Arizona like a wildfire in the summer of 2020, with one in five Arizonans testing positive. On a single day, July 18, 2020, the state reported 147 new deaths to COVID-19, versus just nine deaths in Nevada the same day. Arizona has no statewide mask mandate like Nevada’s to combat the pandemic.

Thanks, in part, to a comprehensive testing initiative, just 18 (less than 0.15%) of Nevada’s 12,000-plus state prisoners, as well as 54 guards, had tested positive for COVID-19 by July 2020. But a group of 99 prisoners that the Nevada Department of Corrections (NOOC) sent to CoreCivic’s 1,926-bed Saguaro Correctional Center, in Eloy, Arizona, was not so lucky.

As of July 16, 2020, four CoreCivic staff members and 69 of the Nevada prisoners had tested positive at the facility, which houses primarily Hawaiian prisoners. The outbreak among Nevada prisoners was first reported in Hawaiian media and later confirmed by NDOC officials on July 18, 2020.

“At the time of testing, none of the offenders exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19 and they currently remain asymptomatic,” said Dr. Michael Minev, NDOC’s medical director, who also said that no one in the group had required hospitalization.

He added that the infected Nevada prisoners “are housed together in the same unit, with offenders who tested positive in separate cells than those who tested negative.”

“Nevada offenders do not have any contact with offenders from other states,” he concluded.

Hawaiian corrections officials beg to differ. Quoting Hawaii Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that 28 Hawaiian prisoners may have had contact with the infected Nevada prisoners from a group of 80 Hawaiian prisoners in quarantine at Saguaro.

NDOC officials promised that the infected prisoners would be retested by Saguaro staff every 21 days until all test negative for the virus.

“They will remain under medical observation twice­daily,” said Minev.

As of August 11, 2020, just 13 of the original 69 infected prisoners still tested positive for the disease. The remaining 56 Nevada prisoners who were originally infected – as well as the other 30 from the state who did not test positive in the previous month – all tested negative.

“CoreCivic is working with NDOC medical and programming staff to monitor, assess, and treat Nevada offenders in their custody,” said NDOC Director Charles Daniels. “Their plans now align with our security and medical-related protocols and procedures.”

But the number of positive tests among CoreCivic guards at Saguaro shot up in August to 15, though 13 had already recovered and were cleared to return to work. And one of the Nevada prisoners at Saguaro went on record to claim there are more symptomatic cases of the disease among the group than CoreCivic will admit.

“There are [a] few inmates who have complained that it feels like there’s fluid on their lungs, and they’re having trouble breathing,” Rickie Slaughter told the Nevada Independent. “There are quite a few inmates suffering from fatigue and different spine aches or abdominal tenderness in their stomach.”

CoreCivic claims that it is taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Yet other CoreCivic facilities in Eloy that house ICE detainees have seen major outbreaks. As of July 13, 2020, positive tests for the disease had been recorded for 250 detainees and 128 guards — more than 40 percent of the staff — at the Eloy Detention Center, according to The Arizona Republic.

According to Slaughter, “The running joke amongst [Saguaro guards] and inmates was that, ‘Well ... just about everybody’s got it now. As long as nobody dies, we’re alright.’”

“I believe their goal was to keep this prison as one of the few CoreCivic prisons in Arizona as being characterized as having zero COVID cases so that they can continue to take in more contracts and money from other states,” he said. “Because obviously no state really wants to send inmates to a prison that has COVID cases.”

During the 2019 legislative session, Nevada lawmakers passed a law prohibiting the state from using private prisons. But the ban does not take effect until mid-2022. Nevertheless, NDOC plans to return the Nevada prisoners from Saguaro later this year, if not sooner. Facing a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, Nevada lawmakers are debating a proposal to accelerate that timeline in order to save an estimated $1.5 million in fees it will owe CoreCivic under its contract, currently not set to expire until mid-2021.

The ACLU of Nevada cheered the expedited return proposal.

“We will reach out to the dozens of Nevada families with impacted loved ones and fight for fair medical conditions so they can recover and swiftly return to Nevada,” the group said. 


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