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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. 

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“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.

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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CoreCivic facilities struggle to contain virus, face legal challenges in court

Before the virus hit the Florence facility, federal prosecutors asserted in court filings that CoreCivic had taken steps to reduce the risk of an outbreak at its facilities by screening new detainees at intake, increasing cleaning at the facility, taking the temperature of staff and isolating the most at-risk detainees, among other steps.

But the revelation that COVID-19 is now spreading inside the jail comes as CoreCivic faces the challenge of mitigating the virus in its other prisons and detention centers. The company runs prisons across the U.S., including two other private prisons and two immigration detention centers in Arizona. 

Caroline Isaacs, program director for the American Friends Service Committee in Arizona, said she worries there is too little local oversight of how CoreCivic handles the pandemic – particularly since most of its Arizona facilities contract with federal agencies or other states. 

“If they don’t have a contractual relationship with state or local government, they don’t have to tell us anything,” Isaacs said. “We have zero oversight…in the middle of a pandemic.”

Positive COVID-19 cases in La Palma Correctional Center, a CoreCivic immigrant detention facility in Eloy, have jumped from two to at least 36 in less than a month. The company has confirmed that ten of its La Palma employees have also tested positive. AZCIR has previously reported the tactic of “cohorting” detainees who have been exposed to the virus could result in the virus spreading further, according to public health experts. In interviews with AZCIR, detainees at La Palma said they had insufficient access to soap, PPE, cleaning supplies and medical care – claims CoreCivic spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist has previously denied. 

Another CoreCivic facility, Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, has more than 200 positive COVID-19 cases among detainees in ICE and U.S. Marshals custody according to reports by the San Diego Union Tribune. A 57-year-old man who had been held at the facility as an ICE detainee died of the virus earlier this week, the reports said. 

Two CoreCivic employees who worked at Otay Mesa sued CoreCivic last month in federal court, alleging the company did not do enough to protect staff from the pandemic.

“Since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners,” Gilchrist wrote in a May 8 statement. “We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities.”

U.S. Marshals spokesperson Lynzey Donahue said the agency contracts out for all its detention needs, and those facilities “are responsible for the medical care that USMS prisoners receive.” 

She also said, “All training protocols, quarantine decisions or policy adjustments are made at the facility level.”

Donahue said in a statement that 488 people in U.S. Marshals custody across the nation had tested positive as of May 5. The agency is responsible for 61,000 people on a daily basis, she said.

Expedited hearings for “time served” defendants decreased detained population 

The detained population at the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex has decreased in recent weeks because of a collaborative effort by the court, defense attorneys and prosecutors, according to AZCIR interviews with attorneys and court personnel. The court expedited the cases of detained defendants who were likely to receive sentences of time served – often for low-level immigration offenses – so those individuals could be released faster.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona also began reducing new prosecutions of certain immigration offenses. Mass prosecutions of border crossers, known as “Operation Streamline” have halted due to the pandemic. In March, the U.S. Attorney filed 405 illegal entry misdemeanor charges, down from 757 such charges in February, according to data it released publicly.

The strategy created more space in the facility for social distancing, said Laura Conover. With fewer people detained, “you increase the odds for the people that remain,” she said.

Before the virus hit the Florence facility, federal defense attorneys scrambled to file motions asking federal judges to reconsider releasing their clients from pre-trial detention due to the threat of COVID-19. These defendants had previously been ordered detained because a judge had ruled they were a flight risk or a danger to the public. 

In several court orders reviewed by AZCIR, judges denied those motions, citing steps CoreCivic had taken to reduce the risk of the virus spreading. In some instances, judges called concerns about COVID-19 too “speculative” to outweigh prosecutors’ arguments to keep the defendant in detention.

But defense attorney Celia Rumann said now the virus poses a tangible risk not only to those inside the jail, but the entire community. 

“We know that it is in the jail,” Rumann said. “And we know that people are coming and going from the jail…What happens in the jail will not stay in the jail.”

Valeria Fernández contributed reporting to this story.