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ACLU sues to protect Arizona county jail inmates from virus

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone and the sheriff’s office demanding the release of medically vulnerable inmates from the county’s jails.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of the nonprofit Puente Human Rights Movement and inmates with medical conditions like diabetes and lung disease comes as positive cases of the coronavirus among Maricopa County jail inmates surge past the total at state prisons.

MORE: More positive cases of COVID-19 in Phoenix jails than Arizona state prisons

“Persons incarcerated at the Maricopa County jails face a particularly acute threat of infection, illness, permanent injury, and death from COVID-19,” the lawsuit says, calling the lockups “breeding grounds for infectious diseases, due to such factors as close quarters that hinder social distancing.”

A sheriff’s office spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on pending litigation.

Officials say 386 of Maricopa County’s estimated 4,400 inmates had tested positive as of Tuesday compared to 252 confirmed cases among the nearly 41,000 inmates in Arizona’s prisons.

One week before, 30 inmates in the county’s jails had tested positive. The sharp growth has been attributed to more testing and contact tracing inside the jails.

The sheriff’s office says it has taken steps to slow the spread of the virus in the five county jails, such as screening suspects during booking, suspending visitation, and providing face masks to inmates and employees.

In anticipation of possible outbreaks, Maricopa County’s jail population has been reduced by more than a third — from 7,100 in December to about 4,500 now. The courts temporarily suspended the sentences of some inmates so they could return to work and police agencies have cited and released nonviolent suspects.

Arizona is among several states seeing a surge in new COVID-19 cases after stay-at-home orders were lifted last month.

MORE: Arizona sees nearly 2,400 new virus cases, a daily high

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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