COVID-19 Outbreak Grows At Arizona Jail With Largest Concentration Of U.S. Marshal Detainees In Nation

A flock of birds flies over the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona on April 10, 2020. (Photo by Nicole Neri | AZCIR)

By Jude Joffe-Block

PHOENIX – A private facility in Florence, Arizona that houses more than 3,000 defendants awaiting federal court proceedings is grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19 where at least 20 jail staff and detainees have tested positive since the facility’s first confirmed case in late April.

Close to two hundred more detainees are in isolation or quarantine due to exposure to the virus, according to Arizona U.S. Marshal David Gonzales.

The virus spread among U.S. Marshals detainees in the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex comes as COVID-19 cases have surged in jails and prisons in Arizona and across the United States. The Arizona Department of Corrections has confirmed 71 COVID-19 cases among its more than 41,000 detainees, and there are at least 46 cases among detained immigrants at other federal facilities in the state.

Those detained in the Florence correctional complex have been accused of federal crimes such as immigration offenses, drug trafficking, or crimes committed on federal or tribal land. Those crimes may also include misdemeanors and probation violations. The facility is run by CoreCivic, a private prison contractor.

Gonzales said 3,087 beds are currently used by his agency – making it the largest population in the country of people in Marshals custody. Before the pandemic, Gonzales said it was typical to have about 5,000 people in custody at the Arizona facility. U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement and the Mesa Police Department also contract with the jail, though neither agency has reported any positive COVID-19 cases.

Even as the country’s federal court system adjusts to the pandemic in its jails, there is no easy way for the public to learn about Coronavirus cases among detained federal defendants. The U.S. Marshals Service does not maintain a public website that discloses the number of people who have tested positive in its custody, unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Arizona Department of Corrections.

As of May 8, 13 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the central Arizona correctional complex, Gonzales said. Seven jail staffers have also contracted the virus, according to Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic.

“The first revelation [in late April] was a staff member, and the next morning a second staff member,” said Laura Conover, a Tucson-based attorney who manages 400 contract defense attorneys for the Arizona federal court and is a candidate running for Pima County Attorney. “Having prepared night and day for six weeks or seven weeks now [for COVID-19], knowing that this would be inevitable – it was still such a punch to the gut for all the attorneys and all the players.”

Gonzales said it was “remarkable” that the facility has only had 13 positive detainee tests given its large size. “I attribute that to the protocols that CoreCivic has in Arizona,” he said. He also noted none of the U.S. Marshals in Arizona have tested positive from exposure to the virus at work.

After the first positive COVID-19 case at the facility was confirmed in late April, Arizona federal district court stopped having arrestees visit courthouses for initial processing and appearances before a judge, said Deb Lucas, the acting district court executive and clerk of the court. The court had already transitioned other defendant appearances to video conferences or postponed certain proceedings. All federal trials in Arizona have been postponed until at least June 1.

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With trials delayed, defendants are spending more time in jail.

“They haven’t been found guilty — people can be facing very minor offenses, including misdemeanors,” said attorney Celia Rumann, who represents clients at the federal facility. “And now they are at risk of becoming seriously, seriously ill and perhaps dying.”

Rumann said those serious risks for people in pre-trial detention raise “substantive due process questions.”

Typically, 80 percent of defendants detained at the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex are immigrants charged with immigration-related crimes, Gonzales said. Court statistics showed 68 percent of all federal criminal cases in Arizona last year were immigration-related offenses.

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