People gather at the entrance to the CoreCivic private prison in Florence.

FLORENCE — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against a private prison in Florence and federal agencies on behalf of five inmates considered at high risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The law firm of Perkins Coie LLP filed the lawsuit Friday naming the warden of a private prison run by CoreCivic, the U.S. Marshals Service and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The putative class-action suit demands that the defendants ensure that the facility complies with public health guidelines to protect incarcerated people from the threat of COVID-19.

Attorneys are suing on behalf of five plaintiffs with high-risk medical issues, including leukemia, kidney cancer, asthma and high blood pressure, detained at the privately run Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex.

The lawsuit is 89 pages long.

The facility mostly houses people charged with federal crimes who are being held pretrial and have therefore not been convicted of a crime. Attorneys are seeking class-action relief.

The U.S. Marshals Service in Arizona reported Thursday that 13 people detained at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19 and over 400 people were being quarantined. The outbreak is growing rapidly, according to the ACLU.

“For months, public health officials and corrections experts have warned that under current circumstances prisons and jails will become especially potent vectors for the rapid spread of COVID-19 inside the facilities and in the surrounding communities,” said Emma Andersson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Around the country, this prediction has become a bleak reality. The infection rate and death count among incarcerated people and those who work in prisons and jails has exploded and continues to worsen by the day. Our clients at Florence, who include mothers with underlying medical conditions, are constitutionally entitled to be treated humanely. We hope the court will force the responsible parties — including CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility — to give our clients a fighting chance of living through this pandemic.”

Another ACLU attorney also weighed in on the situation.

“We have heard from people inside of these facilities about their fears of contracting COVID-19,” said Jared Keenan, criminal justice staff attorney at the ACLU of Arizona. “This is a simple matter of compassion. It is clear that the prison is not taking the necessary steps to keep incarcerated people and by extension, the general public, safe. We hope the court realizes it must act to protect those who cannot protect themselves due to being incarcerated.”

In interviews with plaintiffs, attorneys from the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, the LGBT and HIV Project, the Racial Justice Program, the ACLU of Arizona and Perkins Coie say they uncovered frightening conditions at CoreCivic’s facility.

One 50-year-old mother of three suffering from kidney cancer has been denied cancer treatment, according to the ACLU. She recently developed a fever and cough but has not been tested for COVID-19.

Another plaintiff is a 39-year-old mother of three who’s been diagnosed with leukemia, the ACLU states. Before being detained at CoreCivic, she was undergoing treatment for this condition, attending regular appointments and taking medicine. She has asked CoreCivic staff at least twice to continue her medical treatments. Yet her last treatment was over a year ago.

“The U.S. Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service have a constitutional duty to protect the people in their custody from the grave risk of contracting COVID-19,” said Jean-Jacques Cabou, a partner at Perkins Coie. “The public health evidence is clear that social distancing and heightened sanitation practices are necessary to fulfill that duty, and yet our government, along with CoreCivic, has failed to do these basic things. That’s against the law.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the private prison companies it contracts with, including CoreCivic, have come under scrutiny around the country for conditions in its facilities during the pandemic. A judge in Los Angeles ordered the federal agency to review those in its custody for high risk of severe symptoms if they catch the virus and to release as many as possible.

Similar lawsuits have been filed by the ACLU in Washington, D.C., Texas, Louisiana, Massachusetts and California, among others.


Jim Headley is a reporter covering breaking news, crime and justice around Pinal County. He can be reached at jheadley@pinalcentral.com.