In an apparent violation of Arizona regulations, Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison company in the country, is failing to report the cases of valley fever among Hawaii prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center.

Under a provision in the Arizona Administrative Code, administrators of correctional facilities are required to report “all cases or suspected cases” of communicable diseases — including valley fever — to the local health authority.

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But a Civil Beat review of disease surveillance reports submitted to the Pinal County Public Health Services District found that CCA has not reported a single case of valley fever at Saguaro, a 1,896-bed prison in Eloy, Arizona, where about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners are housed.

That’s despite the fact that, according to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, at least four Saguaro prisoners have been infected with valley fever since 2014 — two cases in 2016 and one case each in 2015 and 2014.

The department doesn’t have a system in place to track older cases, but Civil Beat has confirmed another case in which a Hawaii prisoner was diagnosed with valley fever in 2013.

Still, CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns denies that the company has been violating the regulations.

“CCA always strives to fulfill applicable state rules, and we have no reason to believe that appropriate reporting of valley fever incidences at (Saguaro) have not been made,” Burns said.

Phoenix dust storm
Valley fever, which is caused by a soil-dwelling fungus that thrives in the desert Southwest, infects as many as 22,000 people a year nationwide. Flickr/Alan Stark

Reporting Requirements

The list of communicable diseases that trigger Arizona’s mandatory reporting requirement is long — 88 in all, ranging from anthrax and smallpox to hepatitis and Lyme disease.

Among them is coccidioidomycosis, the medical term for valley fever — an insidious airborne fungal disease that can lead to fatal complications.

Valley fever is endemic to a swath of Arizona, leading to more than 5,600 reported infections in 2014.

According to the Department of Public Safety, one Hawaii prisoner with valley fever died in June, though it’s still unclear whether the disease was the cause of his death.

As Civil Beat reported, another Hawaii prisoner named Melvin Wright, who was infected with valley fever in 2013, died shortly after he was transferred back to Hawaii in 2014. He died of a heart attack, but valley fever was a contributing cause, according to his autopsy report.

The Pinal County records, obtained by Civil Beat through a public-records request, showed that the Public Health Services District has been notified about five cases of valley fever among the residents at 1250 E. Arica Road in Eloy — the address of Saguaro.

The first report was submitted in 2008, followed by two more reports in 2011. Two additional reports were submitted earlier this year.

But CCA submitted none of the reports. Instead, it was nearby hospitals and clinical labs — other “mandated reporters” under the regulations — that reported the cases.

Similarly, CCA has reported no valley fever at its three prisons adjacent to Saguaro — the Eloy Detention Center, the La Palma Correctional Center and the Red Rock Correctional Center. But hospitals and clinical labs have submitted 17 reports on valley fever at the three locations over the years.

Eloy Arizona sheep1
About 1,400 Hawaii prisoners are housed at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, a dusty small town about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

No Reports On File

Graham Briggs, administrator of the infectious diseases and epidemiology section at the Public Health Services District, says his agency usually relies on hospitals to report the cases of communicable disease — since they are typically the ones conducting the tests.

But, if hospitals aren’t involved, Briggs says it’s up to other “mandated reporters” — including prisons — to submit the reports when the tests come back positive. Failing to do so would be a clear violation of the regulations.

It’s unclear why at least three Saguaro cases from 2013, 2014 and 2015 — the ones counted by the Department of Public Safety — have not been reported to the Public Health Services District.

Burns wouldn’t say why the cases are missing from the records.

Briggs says it could be that, when prisoners showed up with symptoms of pneumonia or valley fever, Saguaro’s doctors simply treated them with broad-spectrum antibiotics and antifungal medications without conducting any tests.

“The department should be monitoring CCA better, making sure that it’s following the law.” — Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons

In such cases, “it’s a little bit subjective as to whether they would be required to report or not,” Briggs said.

But the regulations specify that even a suspected case of communicable disease should be reported at the time of their “diagnosis, treatment or detection,” regardless of whether it’s confirmed by a test.

Briggs acknowledges the point. “In an ideal world, if they’re suspecting valley fever, it would be good to get a report,” he said.

Under the regulations, a failure to follow the mandatory reporting requirement could be a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says how CCA reports the diseases needs to be more closely scrutinized.

“I obviously think that the department should be monitoring CCA better, making sure that it’s following the law,” Brady said. “But they have a cozy relationship; the company hasn’t been penalized for anything. That needs to change.”

In a statement, Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, said the department wasn’t aware of any violations by CCA.

“We are looking into this allegation and will respond appropriately if we do find evidence of any violations,” Schwartz said.

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