As our COVID-19 crisis attracts national, and international, attention, one epicenter within Arizona has been largely overlooked: the privately run jail in Florence that houses the largest concentration of federal pretrial detainees in the nation.
As of July 15, 219 of the approximately 3,000 inmates at the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex, or CAFCC, owned and operated by CoreCivic, have tested positive for COVID-19.
This number, troubling as it is, tells us little about the true scope of the crisis at the facility. This is because the rate of positive COVID-19 tests among those few detainees who have actually been tested is sky high.
Since the first COVID-19 diagnosis at the facility in late April, a mind-boggling 82% of the current detainees who have received tests have tested positive, according to numbers the facility regularly discloses to lawyers representing detainees. The national positive test rate, by comparison, is currently just under 9%. Arizona’s rate in July has been 18%.
The World Health Organization considers a positive test rate of 5% or lower to be an aspirational benchmark. Anything higher is a sign that not enough testing has
been performed to identify the scope of an infectious outbreak, a failure which, in turn, makes it difficult or impossible to undertake adequate preventative measures.
The positive test rate at CAFCC is more than sixteen times higher than this benchmark.
Officials at CAFCC have responded to the outbreak by removing individuals with a positive test from their housing units and transferring them to a special COVID housing unit. Individuals who shared a cell or who lived within the same cluster of closely spaced cells, referred to as a “pod,” with the infected individual are then “quarantined” within their housing units. Quarantine means being isolated within a cell or pod during nearly every hour of every day.
This strategy is likely to be at best useless, and at worst harmful, when testing is inadequate. Rather than keeping quarantined detainees separate from those who have COVID-19, the facility is quarantining healthy detainees with infected, but untested, individuals, thus exposing uninfected detainees to the disease rather than protecting them from it.
So far, the numbers bear this out. Since late April, when the outbreak at the facility began, the number of positive cases has increased approximately seven-fold. This trajectory will continue until enough detainees are tested that infected individuals can reliably be separated from the uninfected.
The incidence of COVID-19 cases and deaths at prisons throughout the country is truly disturbing. But CAFCC is not a prison. The majority of the detainees at the facility are in custody pending trial, most for low-level, non-violent offenses. They are presumed innocent. The mere fact of having been accused of a crime has exposed them to COVID-19 and all that comes with it. And the facility’s response has been woefully inadequate. Nothing makes this clearer than the astounding positive test rate.
The effect of CAFCC’s poor management of the crisis is not limited to the detainees themselves. Many detainees face only short sentences—or no sentences at all—and are then released from the facility into the community, where their families and neighbors are put at risk by the facility’s reckless policy of under-testing. Staff at the facility are also at risk, as are their families.
This week executives for CoreCivic and other private detention companies testified before Congress. They disclosed that more than 930 employees at their private U.S. immigration detention centers have tested positive for COVID-19. During questioning, U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y. noted reports of inadequate medical care and testing at these privately-run detention centers. The positive test rate at CAFCC certainly bears this out.
To date, no one at the CAFCC has died of COVID-19. Better testing is the best way to assure it stays that way.
Benjamin Good is an assistant federal public defender in Phoenix.