More than 700 Tucson inmates have tested positive for COVID-19

Updated: Aug. 5, 2020 at 10:51 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Hundreds of inmates and corrections staff in Arizona’s state prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry reported 745 positive cases among inmates at facilities in Tucson. 517 of those cases are inmates housed at the Whetstone unit, which currently houses 1,066 inmates.

That is nearly half of that facility’s current population.

“I’m very concerned, but frankly I’m not surprised,” said attorney Corene Kendrick. “The Whetstone unit is a dormitory where it’s just impossible for the men to practice social distancing.”

Kendrick is a staff attorney with the Prison Law Office, based in California. Her team has been involved in a lawsuit with ADCRR regarding conditions behind bars for year.

“It gives me no joy and no pride to be proven correct, that the virus does not respect the prison walls and when you have staff coming in and out of prison everyday, there’s going to be this type of turn,” said Kendrick.

The attorney said her office has been inundated with letters from the incarcerated, their loved ones and corrections staff over what’s going on inside state prisons.

[ Concern spreads over potential COVID-19 outbreak in state prisons ]

KOLD News 13 has also received letters, emails, phone calls and messages through social media sharing concerns.

We received an envelope full of letters from one man inside the Whetstone Unit last week. In one letter dated July 13, the inmate said he has made “35+ hopeless requests” to the Governor Doug Ducey’s Office, prison wardens, health departments and more.

He claimed the department has done things to “create the appearance” of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 at the state’s prisons. He went on to write:

“Just words, while in fact, there is massive and widespread inaction and inconsistency and absolutely no (NONE) effort or policies being implemented to enforce these measures. No enforcement of mask wearing or social distancing.

24-7, we at Whetstone are never less than 3 feet away from each other and these Gov. agencies refuse to enforce masks or distancing, despite claiming they are doing everything to keep inmates safe.”

According to the ADCRR, inmates were provided fabric face coverings for their use on July 2. All prison complex staff have been required to wear cloth face coverings since June 15.

“It was unconscionable mistake for the department to not require incarcerated people - and staff - to wear face coverings from the beginning,” said Kendrick.

Late last month, inmates staged a peaceful walkout at Whetstone. We were told the demonstration stemmed from concerns about the spread of COVID-19 inside the facility.

The inmates reportedly told staff they wanted to remain on lockdown to cut down on the spread of COVID-19, and wanted to have their lunches delivered to them.

Patty’s son is currently serving a sentence at Whetstone.

“He called me right in the middle of it sounding very panicked,” she said.

[ Concerns continue over COVID-19 response in Arizona’s state prisons ]

At the time, the department confirmed the unit implemented modified operations. On Aug. 4, the ADCRR said all inmates at Whetstone will receive meals and all required medication and medical services in their housing units.

Governor Doug Ducey was asked about the large number of cases Wednesday morning from Washington, D.C.

“We’re going to test everyone in our correctional facilities. We are going to make sure they have the proper care and comfort that’s necessary,” said Gov. Ducey. ”Anyone that test positive is going to quarantined and cared for in that situation. Just like our first step was to protect the nursing homes and long-term care, now we have the testing capacity that we can test everyone in Arizona and in these congregate settings, like the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry. We want to make sure they have those same services.”

Dr. Deborah Birx said the administration was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Prisons to find the best practices for prisons to mitigate outbreaks.

Proper care is what inmates are concerned about. One of the letters from an inmate ending with:

“The pandemic is here at ASPC despite their denial. Many of us will soon be very sick or die. HELP! PLEASE!”

“We are a minimum security (all less than five years). We were not sentenced to illness or death by COVID. Please help us.”

From the outside looking in, that’s what Kendrick is working to do.

“I believe the people who are living this reality and it’s not just the people who are incarcerated in the prisons,” said Kendrick. “There are more and more staff, custody officers, healthcare staff that in recent months have contacted reporters like you and others and are coming forward saying, don’t believe the shiny, happy story you’re hearing from headquarters. We’re living this.”

Kendrick’s office recently took a virtual tour inside one of the state’s prisons in Florence. She said they have requested access and are hoping to do the same at Whetstone within two weeks.

According to the ADCRR, staff in those areas are equipped with full PPE, which includes N-95 masks, gowns, gloves, and face shields. The department said rigorous cleaning throughout the unit was already in place and has been heightened as a result of the test results.

As of Aug. 5, 1,429 COVID-19 cases were confirmed among inmates in Arizona’s state prisons. 21 confirmed or suspected deaths related to the virus have been reported.

“The department’s own tracking website now says that they believe there’s up to 21 incarcerated people who are proven or suspected to die from COVID and unfortunately, we’re concerned that number is just going to keep going up as the weeks and months go on,” said Kendrick.

Inmates confirmed, per ACDRR:

- Tucson: 745

- Marana: 9

- Florence: 99

- Phoenix: 218

- Yuma: 108

For more data from the department, click here.