Nearly 900 COVID-19 cases at the state prison complex in Tucson

Published: Sep. 4, 2020 at 10:46 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in Arizona’s state prisons.

As of September 4, there were 2,349 positive tests confirmed among inmates and 1,017 had recovered. According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry, more than 38,000 inmates have been tested. 13,170 are listed as “pending.”

898 of those confirmed positive cases are at the state prison complex in Tucson. Ten deaths, confirmed or potentially due to COVID-19, have been reported at the complex.

“People are just going to continue to get sick just based on the physical layout of the prisons in Arizona,” said Corene Kendrick.

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 years.

Her team took a virtual tour inside the Whetstone Unit after 517 inmates housed there tested positive at the beginning of August.

“It’s impossible for them to maintain any type of social distancing as they go about their lives,” said Kendrick.

Similar concerns have been shared by Arizonans whose loved ones are incarcerated at Whetstone.

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

“He was like, it’s literally like a nightmare,” said Michelle, who asked that we just used her first name. Michelle’s cousin is housed at Whetstone. Among several complaints and concerns, he said he was kept in an area with inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 after he received a negative result.

“He got really nervous and scared because he has asthma,” said Michelle.

Kendrick said her team saw “several things” when they toured the unit late last month.

“Unlike some of our past tours to other prisons, it was very, very clean, so that was good to see. Hopefully it wasn’t just done for our benefit, but regularly,” said Kendrick.

She said plexiglass had been placed in the prison to separate the sick patients from the rest of the group, which had just been a mesh curtain at one point. A lack of social distancing between sleeping quarters was not a surprise.

”We measured and it was 42-inches between a top bunk and a bottom bunk,” said Kendrick.

She said it did appear that some men had been moved to create more space among them in the bunks.

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

While she will continue to push for a safe and transparent process in caring for COVID-19 patients behind bars, family members wait outside Whetstone with hope.

“It’s a different feeling when you have a family member because regardless of what they did, they are still your family member and that love you have for them is unconditional,” said Michelle.

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