Prison COVID outbreak spurs call to release vulnerable inmates early

By: - December 17, 2020 4:12 pm

Erika Ovalle, of the advocacy group Poder in Action, calls for Gov. Doug Ducey and corrections Director David Shinn to release inmates and take other steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Arizona prisons at press conference at the state Capitol on Dec. 17, 2019. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

Amid an outbreak of coronavirus infections in Arizona prisons that reportedly killed one of the wardens, activists and parents of incarcerated people are calling on Gov. Doug Ducey and state corrections officials to do more to protect inmates from COVID-19, starting with releasing inmates to relieve overcrowding in the state’s prisons.

At a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, the community advocacy group Poder in Action called on Ducey and Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry Director David Shinn to immediately release inmates who are elderly, medically vulnerable or within six months of their release dates.

“Mass incarceration and the failure to reduce prisons and jail populations have quickly led directly to an increase in COVID-19,” said Lisa Long, whose son, Tristan, is incarcerated in Arizona. “I’m tired of politics playing a role in our loved ones’ lives. We must have a director and legislature to protect our community, and a governor to lead by an example.”

Sherry Williams said she’s concerned for the safety of her son, Logan, who is incarcerated at the Lewis prison near Buckeye. Logan recently had surgery for colorectal cancer, Williams told reporters after the press conference, and though he was transferred out of a unit where COVID-19 was prevalent, she still worries.

“This is just so unbelievable that they’re not trying harder to protect not only my son but every single inmate that is in there from this horrible, horrible disease,” Williams said.

Holly Woods, who was incarcerated for three years at the state’s Perryville prison in Goodyear, said inmates have little ability to socially distance and little access to protective equipment or cleaning supplies, making it difficult to protect themselves from the coronavirus in prison. Prison facilities have no ventilation, she said, and restricted access to medical personnel.

Given that Arizona is one of the most heavily incarcerated states in the U.S., Woods said there’s one only guaranteed way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, and that is to alleviate overcrowding by releasing some of the state’s 38,000 inmates. 

Poder in Action is also calling for Ducey and Shinn to give the remaining inmates priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine, the first batches of which arrived in the state this week. In addition, they called on law enforcement to stop jailing people for minor infractions, such as failure to pay fees, which would reduce the spread of COVID-19 in county jails.

“Even one of our demands to be met by the governor or by Director Shinn, even one would reduce the population on the inside, increase the medical care on the inside and save lives,” Woods said. 

According to the corrections department, 5,490 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, with 33 confirmed or suspected deaths from the virus. The agency’s website also reports 1,517 staff members who have “self-reported” as positive for the coronavirus, though it doesn’t report whether there have been any staff deaths from the disease. A spokesman for the agency wouldn’t comment on the cause of death for Edwin Jenson, the warden at the state prison in Yuma, where 655 inmates in one unit recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Erika Ovalle of Poder in Action said inmates should be part of the first phase of COVID-19 vaccinations. 

The first round of vaccines, which health care providers in Arizona began administering this week, is earmarked for frontline health care providers and residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Next in line for the second and third tiers of phase one are adults in congregate settings, law enforcement personnel, teacher and child care workers, other essential workers and adults over 65 or with medical conditions deemed high risk.

With vaccine availability limited — the state’s initial shipment had enough dosages for about 380,000 people — prioritizing new people could bump others off the list during the first phase. Ovalle didn’t say whether others should be moved out of phase one or given less priority to ensure availability for inmates. But she emphasized that prison inmates are the state’s responsibility and cannot socially distance. She said they should be considered as people under long-term care.

“Out of ethics and humanity and respect for everybody’s basic human rights, we cannot compromise them in that way,” Ovalle said. “No matter what you’ve done in life, you’re still a human being.”

The corrections department said it has taken a number of steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Agency spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said the department started requiring staff to wear face masks on June 15 and provided masks to inmates on July 2 — Woods cited face masks as a policy the agency has taken that has been effective — and employees undergo temperature and symptom checks when they arrive at work each day. Lamoreaux said the department routinely cleans living areas, common areas and restrooms in correctional facilities, and began providing inmates with free hand soap in March. 

Lamoreaux also said Arizona’s correctional department is one of the few in the nation to mass test its inmate population. And he said the agency is working with the Arizona Department of Health Services to prepare for inmate vaccinations “in the coming months,” though it’s unclear exactly when that will begin. 

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Department has taken broad actions to mitigate the risk and impact of COVID-19 in all of its facilities,” Lamoreaux said.

A spokesman for Ducey did not respond to a request for comment.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”

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