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We must act now to protect the most vulnerable population in Arizona

‘It is our duty of care to protect and treat those whose liberty we have denied’

By John Fabricius |

The test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.

Pearl Buck

The news surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic brings to mind my experiences spent alongside the most vulnerable population we have in Arizona: the men, women, and children who are incarcerated in Arizona’s 14 state prison complexes and 15 county jail systems.

The Arizona carceral system forces this population to be exposed to the same viruses and pathogens as the general public, while at the same time, prohibiting, regulating, and failing to provide any prophylactic measures or effective treatments otherwise available to the general public. This results in increased risk and a perfect storm of dystopian realities. Common are outbreaks of preventable disease and illness, suffering, pain, and avoidable deaths.

Data shows that COVID-19 will have an outsized impact on the older incarcerated population. According to research conducted by the ACLU-AZ,

The percentage of incarcerated individuals 55 and older has increased 65 percent in the last eight years. 1 in 10 is older than 55 years, despite evidence that older individuals pose the lowest risk for criminal behavior.

If quick and decisive action to protect this vulnerable population is not taken immediately, people will suffer and die. It will be a death sentence for many people.

In my 15 years in the Arizona prison system, I witnessed avoidable outbreaks of Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), Influenza (Flu), Scabies, and other illnesses. Moreover, I saw the horrendous impact these outbreaks had on people. The response by jail and prison staff is consistent and predictable: Deny the person is sick, make accusations that the person is malingering to get out of a work assignment, and then downplay and deny the seriousness of the illness.

Beyond those hurdles, becoming ill can be financially devastating to the incarcerated. In the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC), the incarcerated generally earn between $.10 and $.40/hour. In order to obtain medical care, the person must spend $4.00 (a week’s pay) to see a nurse. This visit generally amounts to taking a temperature and checking blood pressure, followed by an admonition to “drink more water”. It is often days before an incarcerated person actually sees a medical provider.

Since 2010, this system has significantly worsened. The primary driver of the problem is the state’s use of private companies to provide medical and mental healthcare.

Under these contracts, the state pays a per diem for each incarcerated person. The system pays the provider whether service is provided or not. Indeed, when people do use the system, the provider assumes those costs. Accordingly, the system is set up to disincentivize the provision of healthcare and treatment. This failed system is the cause of a large class-action suit, Parsons v. Shinn (neé Ryan), filed on behalf of the people incarcerated in ADC prisons.

As we have seen over and over again, Arizona’s carceral system is an exemplar of inefficiencies, denial of service, and disregard for human life. The system will not change on its own. The responsibility to effect change in this draconian system lies with the citizens of Arizona.

I believe, as does AFSC-Arizona, that we must release as many people from state prisons and county jails as we can in order to increase public safety. We have over 10,000 workers entering and exiting the state prisons on a daily basis. Men and women are released from prison every day in Arizona. We have thousands of people working in county jails. The jail populations cycle hundreds of people in and out on a daily basis, also known as “jail churn”. We must ensure that the prisons and jails are protected and that protocols are in place that can be facilitated effectively. We cannot achieve this in a system that is overcrowded, under-resourced, understaffed, and fails to provide the basic preventive care and treatment needed to meet this challenge.

I join AFSC-Arizona in demanding that Gov. Doug Ducey and ADC Director David Shinn:

  1. Work with the Department of Health Services (AZDHS) to develop and make public a crisis plan to protect incarcerated people and staff from COVID-19 that is in keeping with CDC guidelines and best practices in the medical field;
  2. Provide detailed, updated information on a regular basis to all staff, incarcerated people and their families regarding the risk factors, preventive measures, ADC testing and treatment guidelines, any changes regarding prison operations or policies related to the virus;
  3. Immediately release any and all incarcerated people who qualify for Transition Program and/or SB1310;
  4. Order the compassionate release of all terminally and chronically ill, elderly, and immuno-compromised incarcerated people who are at high risk of infection but low risk to the public;
  5. Halt all unnecessary admissions, including revocations for technical violations of probation or parole, low-level drug offenses, or other short-term, low-risk individuals.

We must act now to protect the most vulnerable population in Arizona. It is our duty of care to protect and treat those whose liberty we have denied.

John Fabricius assisted more than 150 fellow incarcerated people to assert their rights in court while serving 15 years in prison. He is passionate about criminal justice reform and co-authored legislation to establish an ADC citizens’ oversight board, Truth in Corrections: Restoring Public Trust in the Arizona Department of Corrections.

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