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Private Prisons and COVID-19 -- A Need for Speed

Placing more than 20% of its prisoners in for-profit prisons is hindering Arizona’s efforts to contain the coronavirus


By John Dacey and Robert Craig


People in prisons who do not present dangers to the public should be released now, regardless of where they are in their sentences. The window of opportunity to release non-dangerous prisoners in the safest manner is closing quickly as the contagion spreads. Mass incarceration provides a terribly worrisome breeding ground for Covid-19, and the addition of for-profit incentives creates the perfect storm of close quarters, lack of quality healthcare, and shirking responsibility.


The coronavirus is a clear and present danger to people confined in prisons, to people who work there, and as a result, to the public at large. Like cruise ships without the luxuries, prisons hold the potential to incubate and spread the disease while adding additional strain to our already stressed healthcare system. It is a question of when - not if - the virus will reach corrections facilities, and indeed, we are getting confirmation of cases in various facilities across the country.


The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry confirmed its third case of Covid-19 last week, one of which is in a privately operated prison, and the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, which holds immigrants under a contract with ICE, confirmed a detainee tested positive for the virus. Prisoner work crews and prison staff go in and out of those prisons and back to the community every day.


Arizona still has time to avoid what is happening in Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a prison privately operated in Florida by The Geo Group where 34 prisoners and six prison employees have tested positive for COVID-19. But that window is rapidly closing. (https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2020/04/11/northwest-florida-private-prison-now-has-34-cases-of-coronavirus/)


Prisoners cannot practice social distancing, and they are utterly dependent on their jailers for safety and healthcare. The poor quality of prison healthcare in Arizona’s public prisons has been the subject of many headlines and a court contempt order against public officials. Privatization of healthcare in prisons has been cited as a significant barrier to the delivery of care in Arizona prisons when the Department of Corrections and its healthcare contractor disagree over which entity had responsibility for a particular prisoner’s care or payment for the care.


COVID-19 in private prison facilities presents an additional dilemma. Prison corporations are in it for the money. They are not transparent or subject to public records laws.

Private prisons now incarcerate 20% of prisoners committed to the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry, a percentage that keeps growing. These for-profit prisons also import prisoners to Arizona from other states, like commodities on an exchange, increasing the number of transmission vectors, and because of the tyranny of exponential growth, a small number of cases could cause a vicious run of the disease through the prison population and beyond.  


Prisoners have expressed their fears about the virus threat and being confined in crowded spaces. Some have been incarcerated for years for drug offenses or DUI and are assigned to rooms where dozens of prisoners stay in bunk beds that are three feet apart. Some have been placed “in the hole” with other prisoners for internal discipline. Sometimes these private facilities are on lock-down for days at a time due to endemic staffing shortages.


There are no masks or gloves.


Private prison corporations  assume total operational control of prisons, including prisoners’ healthcare, and the contracts often exclude responsibility for prisoners with specific serious illnesses.


When a private prison has an outbreak of COVID-19, will the private operator tell the Department that they did not sign up for this? Will they be  as equipped to handle an outbreak as public facilities? Does the Department even know? Will the corporations push the obligation back to the State? Will this epidemic deepen the devastating disparate impact that mass incarceration has on communities of color by failing to provide adequate care to marginalized groups who are most at risk of death?


This circumstance is a national dilemma. The majority of the states and the federal government contract with for-profit prisons. The federal government places most immigrant detainees in for-profit prisons and detention centers.


Privatization of prisons has been a terrible idea from day one, and COVID-19 is making it much worse. At the very least the State should release non-dangerous drug offenders and DUI violators to home arrest and other forms of isolation consistent with CDC protocols. This action has the side effect of being dramatically less expensive than caring for many prisoners with the virus at a time when the State is spending to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic.


Such alternatives also could afford more social distancing within prisons by lowering population density. Ideally, the Department would discontinue its use of private prisons in the process.  


The longer we wait to act while the threat of contagion looms, the greater the risk of losing the opportunity. Public health and safety and the State’s coffers will be better served by taking action now.


Join the growing voice of people by finding your elected officials at this site: https://myreps.datamade.us/.


So many prisoners are already at greater risk to get the virus due to poor health status and poor healthcare inside the prisons. Ask and convince your officials to do everything in their power to release non-violent prisoners now.

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