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Federal Inmates At Private Arizona Prison Sue Over Unconstitutional Conditions

A group of federal pretrial inmates housed at a CoreCivic facility in Florence is suing the warden and several other government officials over alleged unconstitutional conditions at the private prison.

The legal action, filed Friday in the United States District Court by attorneys from the law firm Perkins Coie, the ACLU and the ACLU of Arizona, makes claims of “unconstitutional conditions of confinement” at the prison, which are in violation of the inmates’ Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights.

“While COVID-19 has radically altered life for most people, life remains largely the same for the federal detainees at CoreCivic Inc.’s Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex,” the lawsuit states. “Up to 14 people are crammed into a cell and stacked on bunk beds against a single wall. Soap is scarce; disinfecting products are all but nonexistent.”

The suit says the conditions would not be acceptable during normal times, but the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated their severity to a matter of life and death for the inmates.

The lawsuit alleges inmates “have resorted to wiping down communal telephones with either T-shirts or watered-down menstrual pads.”

“No one outside these walls would willingly risk these conditions in the face of the dangers posed by COVID-19. Nor should those inside be forced to do so,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit names five individual plaintiffs and asks the district court to recognize a plaintiff class at the private prison of similarly impacted inmates.

One of the plaintiffs, Maria Guadalupe Lucero-Gonzalez, has been detained at the CoreCivic facility since November 2019.

“She suffers from several medical conditions, including asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and kidney cancer,” the lawsuit states. “Before being detained at CoreCivic, she was undergoing treatment for her kidney cancer. She has asked CoreCivic staff, on several occasions, to allow her to continue her cancer treatments. CoreCivic staff have refused, stating that she is not allowed to leave CoreCivic due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit says Lucero has recently developed a fever and a cough. “Despite requesting medical care, she has not been tested for COVID-19.”

The lawsuit asks the district court to appoint an independent expert who would “lead a review of CoreCivic to determine whether Defendants have implemented consistent social (or physical) distancing, novel coronavirus testing procedures, and hygienic practices sufficient to reasonably protect Plaintiffs from contracting COVID-19 while in Defendants’ custody.”

If the expert finds conditions are lacking, the lawsuit requests the court expert be allowed to propose additional recommendations to remedy the alleged violations. If those recommendations cannot be met, the lawsuit requests the inmates be released pending their trial.

“Absent intervention from this Court, devastating, and in many cases deadly, irreparable harm will befall incarcerated persons, jail staff, and the community,” the lawsuit states. “The outbreaks in similar detention facilities around the country prove the need for immediate action.”

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Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.