For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, prison inmates in Arizona will be able to receive visitors, though only if they’re vaccinated and haven’t had any disciplinary issues.
The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-entry announced Thursday that in-person visitations will resume on June 19, with restrictions intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Inmates will also be able to receive in-person visits from their attorneys. And work programs that were halted amid the COVID pandemic will resume on June 5.
The department suspended in-person visitations on March 13, 2020, two days after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a pandemic. Contact with family, friends and attorneys has been limited to video and telephonic visits.
Only inmates who are vaccinated against the coronavirus will be able to receive in-person visits, and only “Phase III” inmates — those with no disciplinary violations for at least six months — will be eligible.
Of the more than 36,000 people currently incarcerated in Arizona state prisons are fully vaccinated, more than 25,000 have received both doses and are fully vaccinated, and that number will rise by the time in-person visitations begin. It’s unclear how many of those fully vaccinated inmates are in Phase III and will be eligible to receive visitors. The department announced last week that it has administered more than 53,000 vaccine doses to inmates, but it didn’t say how many inmates have been fully vaccinated.
Visitations will still be substantially different than they were prior to the pandemic. The corrections department’s new visitation guidelines limit visits to a single two-hour period per week, whereas visits previously could be as long as four hours for medium- and minimum custody inmates. Inmates are limited to three visitors — up to two adults and one child — per visit. Physical contact will be prohibited. And visitation will be at 50-percent capacity, with visits subject to social distancing rules.
All visitors will be subjected to temperature checks and COVID screening questions. Visitors will be required to wear masks, but they won’t have to be vaccinated. They’ll have to bring in their own medical procedure masks as opposed to simple cloth masks.
Unvaccinated inmates will still be limited to video visits.
The vaccination requirements for in-person visits do not apply to attorney visits. Attorneys will be subject to COVID screening and both lawyers and inmates will be required to wear face masks.
Donna Leone Hamm, director of the inmate advocacy group Middle Ground Prison Reform, said she’s heard grumbling from some inmate families about the two-hour limit on visitations. For people who live far from the prisons where their loved ones are incarcerated, the long travel time might not be worth it for such a short visit, she said.
However, Hamm said she thought the restrictions being imposed on the new visitations were reasonable, given the ongoing risk of COVID-19.
“I don’t think that anyone expects these to be permanent and I think the department needs to gain some assurance that what they’re doing is not going to create additional problems. We’re just happy to see step one take place,” she said.
Hamm said vaccinations have largely been made available to any inmates who want them. And the new restrictions, she said, may encourage those who passed on the vaccinations to reconsider.
Others had mixed feelings about the department’s announcement. John Fabricius, director of the advocacy group Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections, worried that the corrections department is opening things up too early and risked introducing more COVID infections into Arizona prisons. And his trust in the department is low, given what he deemed its poor handling of inmate safety during the pandemic.
The vaccination requirement partially assuaged Fabricius’s concerns, but he worried that it would also create “bifurcation” among inmates who can receive visitors and those who can’t. He said the department hasn’t properly educated inmates about the vaccine, and those who refused vaccinations because they feel they’re potentially dangerous or ineffective may feel that they’re being punished for acting in good conscience.
On the other hand, Fabricius was pleased that some inmates will be able to receive visitors again.
“Ultimately it’s my position that this is a bit premature, but I understand deeply why family, friends and loved ones want to have this occur sooner rather than later,” Fabricius said.
Rebecca Fealk, program coordinator for the Arizona chapter of the pro-criminal justice reform Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee, also had concerns. Requiring medical-grade masks risks the possibility of people driving long distances to visit loved ones, only to be turned away because they only brought a cloth mask. She said the department should provide proper masks to visitors.
Fealk said she understands the need for visits to be scheduled in advance, but worried that families will suffer penalties if unexpected issues come up, such as a broken down car. And she said it was cruel for the department to limit the number of child visitors an inmate can receive, given that many people have multiple children.