AFSC-Arizona Demands Immediate Measures to Stop COVID Outbreak in State Prisons

By AFSC-AZ Staff |

AFSC-Arizona demands action after learning about the 517 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 while incarcerated at the Whetstone Unit of the Tucson state prison complex. This is nearly 50% of the unit’s total population.

This rate of infection did not happen by accident; it occurred due to the willful neglect by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) and its staff, and the indifference by Governor Doug Ducey and his executive branch leadership—including Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS)—toward all 40,000 people incarcerated by the state.

In March, ADCRR and the public at-large knew about the contagious nature of COVID-19 and—with the inability of people inside to socially distance and the unavailability of basic PPE items like hand sanitizer and masks—that prisons act as an incubator of coronavirus. While offices and schools shut down, hand sanitizer use has become ubiquitous, and people on the outside are instructed to socially distance, those in prisons have been largely unable or even prohibited from protecting themselves. While ADCRR refused for weeks to require staff and contractors to wear masks (the widely accepted method to slow the spread), people inside were denied state-provided masks for themselves and actually cited for making their own out of shirts and towels.

Punishment was prioritized over public health.

In April, AFSC-AZ and our coalition partners—including the ACLU of Arizona, & the Prison Law Office—wrote letters to Gov. Ducey, Dr. Christ, and ADCRRasking for additional protections against COVID-19, as well as the immediate release of vulnerable populations who have little time left on their sentences in order to reduce overcrowding and transmission. That same month, an analysis by detailed how COVID-19 would infect nearly all people living and working inside Arizona’s state prisons, unless significant numbers of incarcerated people are released.

In an effort to help, AFSC-AZ organized the ReFraming Justice Mutual Aid Project to collect PPE, soap, and hygiene items for people inside ADCRR facilities. In May, thousands of donated items were delivered, but it was a mere drop in the bucket of what has been actually needed during the pandemic.

It was not until his press conference on June 29 that Gov. Ducey made the announcement state-provided masks would be delivered to all people incarcerated–four months after the pandemic began.

As a result, ADCRR has repeatedly seen COVID-19 outbreaks and issues they have elected not to address inside state prisons. The Yuma prison complex had an outbreak due to contamination from food-service workers. Multiple women incarcerated at the Perryville prison complex contracted the virus after working at the Hickman’s Eggs facility for prison wages. The Florence, Phoenix and Lewis state prison complexes saw increasing cases even when after it was known that health resources were lacking amongst this vulnerable population.

Only under pressure did ADCRR finally include a COVID-19 dashboard on its website to share virus-related data. That dashboard has been criticized for lacking vital information about staff (those who actually bring the virus into facilities) and the slow number of tests. As of today, the dashboard has not been updated with the 517 people incarcerated at Whetstone identified as positive. This is concerning, especially when ADCRR chose to release the information at 8 p.m. the night of primary elections across the state, perhaps hoping this information would be lost in the shuffle.

AFSC-AZ refuses to allow this news to be ignored. We know that more than 1,000 people under ADCRR’s care are infected, but there are likely many more. It is late, but not too late, to implement the measures needed to reduce the spread and save lives.  Gov. Ducey and ADCCRR must:

  • Require all ADCRR staff to wear masks and gloves at all times;
  • Ensure all people who are incarcerated are provided with sufficient masks, soap, and protective equipment;
  • Halt the admissions of new people into ADCRR until the virus has been contained;
  • Stop revocations of people who have technical violated terms of their community supervision;
  • Release the following people to home confinement:
    • 55+ population (10% of 2019FY population)
    • Medically vulnerable population (immunocompromised or with health conditions that cause limited mobility (11% of 2019FY population)
    • Women who are pregnant/post-partum
    • People who were sentenced to 25 years to life and have already served at least 25 years
    • People who have less than six months of their sentence remaining

For additional resources related to COVID-19 inside Arizona’s state prisons, click here.

2 replies »

  1. My fiance is in the Whetstone unit Tucson prison. He’s a diabetic with high blood pressure and in poor health. His release date is October 30 2020. He is in the unit where the 517 tested positive. He is non-violent and vulnerable. He turned himself in on a parole violation which he did try a numerous times to get ahold of his PO.

    I’m afraid he will catch the virus before his release. I talked to him a week ago and he said the inmates to try to stop the spread during their lockdown, but that did not work. I have emailed the president of the United States and Governor Ducey. All I’m asking is to get him released and sent home on house arrest or whatever it takes, but no one seems to care about him and others that are there. 517 cases in less than 2 weeks. That’s over half of the population at that unit and that’s not counting the ones that are sick that they’re not reporting. Hopefully you can help me get him released thank you and have a wonderful safe day!

  2. I hope the way the prison system has reacted to the public health threat from this virus will be enough proof to show the need for accountability and transparency at all levels in our prison system. As a taxpayer,I am deeply offended that I contribute to their 1.2 billion dollar a year budget while they are allowed to hide behind closed doors and endanger not only the helpless inmates but citizens across all Arizona communities. ENOUGH is ENOUGH!!!!! Thank you AFSC for your tireless effort in continuing to expose the Arizona prison system for what it really is.

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