Arizona gets an F for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic in state prisons.
That’s according to a recent nationwide review conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan advocacy group.
Prison Policy Initiative spokesperson Wanda Bertram says they used 30 different metrics to grade prison systems, giving the most weight to what states did or did not do to reduce their prison populations.
“There’s really no more effective tool for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in prisons than letting people go home,” Bertram said. “You’ve got people sharing cells and living in dormitory settings in close proximity to one another. So we believe reducing the density of our prisons is essential for protecting incarcerated people from this life-threatening virus.”
Bertram says Arizona was one of 13 states that did not adopt any policies aimed at reducing prison populations, such as accelerating release dates for those near the end of their sentence or expanding compassionate and medical releases.
“We’ve been in this pandemic for 18 months now, and Arizona has left most of these key policy options on the table,” Bertram said.
Arizona also received low marks for a lack of mitigation efforts within the prisons. For example, Bertram said the review found no requirements that prison staff be frequently tested.
“That’s important,” she said, “because when you have staff going in and out every day, making sure those people aren’t bringing illnesses to work is a really key viral mitigation strategy.”
Bertram acknowledges the study was quite critical, with most states receiving a failing grade. “No state did enough to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in their prisons. Most of them didn’t even do the bare minimum,” she said.
High vaccination rates for prisoners in New Jersey and California earned those states the only passing grades, with a C and C-minus, respectively. The report also commended New Jersey for “a large-scale release that allowed over 2,000 people to leave prison and return home.”
In response to the report, spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry does not have the legal authority to release offenders outside of state statute guidelines. Gov. Doug Ducey’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Regarding our COVID strategy response, keeping our staff, inmates and communities safe continues to be our top priority,” Lamoreaux said. “Most importantly, the medical care provided to those who were impacted by COVID led to a documented recovery rate in excess of 99%.”
According to the department’s online dashboard, more than 12,000 prisoners and nearly 3,000 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 62 people incarcerated in state prisons have died from the virus.
Lamoreaux said more than 78% of prisoners have been fully vaccinated, and the entire prison population was tested twice before vaccines were available.
But throughout the pandemic, people incarcerated in Arizona state prisons have reported a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment and personal hygiene products.
ACLU National Prison Project Deputy Director Corene Kendrick says her office still fields complaints from prisoners who say they aren’t able to protect themselves against the virus.
“Our clients tell us that access to cleaning supplies is limited,” she said. “Many of them say they don’t have access to masks, and when they are provided, they are made of cloth and very flimsy.”
Kendrick is one of the lead attorneys representing Arizona prisoners in a class action lawsuit accusing the state of providing inadequate and unconstitutional health care. She says the Department of Corrections’ response to COVID-19 is no exception.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s much treatment going on beyond just providing people with Tylenol and putting them in isolation,” Kendrick said. “This is an unfortunate pattern we are seeing across the country. Prison systems are using very harsh, solitary confinement units as spaces for medical quarantine, which can exacerbate mental health issues.”
Advocates say the use of isolation is taking an immeasurable toll on incarcerated people.
“Our loved ones are suffering by themselves,” said Puente Human Rights Movement Executive Director Jovana Renteria. Two of Renteria’s family members are incarcerated in Arizona state prisons, and both have been infected with the virus. “They were separated and punished, just for getting sick.”
As the first wave of COVID-19 ravaged prisoners in the spring and summer of 2020, Arizona prisons halted visitations. In response, advocates and family members of incarcerated people traveled in car caravans to state prisons across Arizona, honking their horns in solidarity and calling for releases.
While Gov. Ducey and prisons Director David Shinn declined to use their power to reduce the prison population, Renteria says COVID-19 helped bring attention to unacceptable health care conditions.
“The abuse our loved ones are suffering is nothing new,” Renteria said. “COVID has highlighted the injustice and mistreatment they have faced for decades.”
In the absence of action from the state, Renteria said they have appealed to the federal government, petitioning the Biden administration to launch an investigation into Arizona prison conditions.
“We cannot continue to turn away,” Renteria said. “We must face the human rights abuses happening in our prisons, and do everything we can to protect the incarcerated from this pandemic.”
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