Concern spreads over potential COVID-19 outbreak in state prisons

Inmates, advocates concerned about COVID-19 in Arizona prisons

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - “At the best of times that is unacceptable, but with the coronavirus. It could very possibly turn out to be deadly.”

That is what one inmate at the Santa Rita Unit in Tucson wrote in an email just last week.

Results are pending for six inmates at Arizona state prisons who were tested for COVID-19. In a press release sent March 23, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-Entry said there are no known cases in the prison system.

The department said proactive measures are in place to protect staff and inmates against any potential spread of the coronavirus, including a suspension of all visitations and routine internal movement of inmates across prisons.

However, loved ones of inmates and advocates are questioning the steps the agency claims to be taking to slow the spread in the prisons.

“Oh yeah. I’m, I’m terrified," said Desirae Peil.

Peil’s husband, Christopher, is currently at the state prison in Yuma. She said she has heard several complaints from inmates or others who have loved ones behind bars.

“People are worried their not providing the soaps like they said they were going to. They’re not taking any sanitary precautions as far as cleaning things," Peil said.

“I’ve been contacted by multiple family members of people incarcerated in the prisons across the state of Arizona, including the Tucson prison,” said Corene Kendrick, an attorney for the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, California.

Kendrick received the email from the loved one of an inmate at the state prison in Tucson. KOLD News 13 is not releasing the inmate’s identity.

In part, the letter said:

“With this coronavirus scare, DOC would like the public to believe that they are being proactive in keeping the inmate population safe, when nothing could be further from the truth. One main instance of concern to us, is the dishwasher, or lack of one, in our dining hall. Us inmates have been forced to eat with trays, spoons, and cups that are just being dipped into warm water, and put back out on the line for the next inmate, because there is no dishwasher. At the best of times that is unacceptable, but with the coronavirus. It could very possibly turn out to be deadly.”

The inmate went on to say kitchen workers don’t have access to bleach or any other cleaning chemical, except for dish soap.”

“We as inmates worry just as much about this pandemic, as the public does, probably even more so, because of the poor medical conditions we are forced to live with."

“For the most part, the people who are incarcerated in the the prisons can’t practice social distancing," said Kendrick. “We’re extremely concerned about the possibility of the pandemic spreading through the prisons and then getting out in the broader community.”

According to ADCRR, a number of measures have been implemented to defend against the spread of COVID-19 virus in the complexes:

- Inmates who exhibit flu-like symptoms are being closely monitored and cared for appropriately in a separate area to reduce the risk of transmission.

- All employees entering Arizona prison complexes undergo an infectious disease symptoms evaluation.

- Work crews are being sent out on a limited and as-needed basis. The crews will be evaluated, including temperature checks, as they return to the complex each day. The numbers and frequency of inmate work crews are being significantly reduced.

- A $4‐copay that inmates pay for health care services is being waived for those who are experiencing flu or cold‐like symptoms.

- Free handsoap will be given to all inmates upon request.

For more information about the department’s management strategy here.

However, Peil said she doesn’t believe it.

“It kind just seems like they don’t care. They’re telling us what we want to hear to make us feel safe. But none of us do, at all," she said.

Kendrick and other attorneys from the Prison Law Office, ACLU National Prison Project, ACLU of Arizona, and Arizona Center for Disability Law filed an emergency motion in federal district court in Phoenix in the long-running case of Parsons v. Shinn. The motion asked District Judge Roslyn O. Silver to order the Arizona Department of Corrections to consult with a correctional health care expert to develop a plan to prevent, manage, and treat any COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s ten prisons.

Judge Silver denied the emergency motion Monday, March 23.

While the judge said the concerns were “well-founded,” she wrote the court didn’t have the power over general control, like the distribution of hygiene and cleaning supplies.

“This is not just about the people who are incarcerated in the prisons. There are staff that work at these facilities. Nurses, officers, janitors, all sorts of people who go in and out Arizona’s prisons everyday and then they go home,” Kendrick said.

Copyright 2020 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.