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Attorneys, Inmates, Correctional Officers Say Arizona Prisons Not Ready For The Coronavirus

Attorneys representing the people incarcerated in state prisons say the Arizona Department of Corrections and its private health care provider, Centurion, are not adequately prepared for a possible coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter to legal counsel representing the Arizona Department of Corrections, attorneys from the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit law firm based in Berkeley, California, asked the state to provide a detailed plan.

“We are dealing with an urgent, life and death situation for tens of thousands of people (including incarcerated people, prison staff, and others in the community),” wrote PLO attorney Corene Kendrick. “This is the time for bold and comprehensive action.”

But so far, Kendrick says, state officials have offered no evidence they are ready.

With a team of attorneys from the Prison Law Office and the ACLU’s National Prison Project, Kendrick toured the Florence prison March 11 and 12 as part of the regular monitoring process for the Parsons v. Ryan settlement, which set terms to improve health care in the state’s prisons.

“During our visit to ASPC-Florence, we saw crowded, filthy, unventilated dorms, tents, and Quonset huts housing elderly, frail men with chronic health conditions and multiple disabilities,” Kendrick said.

On March 12, Kendrick said Arizona Department of Corrections Assistant Director Richard Pratt “indicated that he had not yet seen any plans, or received any information or guidance from the Arizona Department of Health Services regarding management and prevention of COVID-19.2”

During the tour of Florence, Kendrick and the other attorneys interviewed more than 500 inmates. Kendrick said most of the people they spoke with were lacking basic information about how to protect themselves against infection.

“There were very few educational materials, if any, at the prison,” Kendrick said. “And to the extent any incarcerated person knew anything about COVID-19, it was based solely upon watching television. Some asked us if it was true it was a ‘hoax,’ as they had seen people on television saying that.”

Kendrick said inmates are not having their temperatures checked, and the screening process they were shown by prison officials to be used on new inmates consisted of a piece of paper with just a few questions on it.

“One of which was ‘In the past 21 days have you been to the province of Wuhan, China?’” Kendrick said.

In Arizona state prisons, inmates must pay a $4 copay to be seen by health care providers. Kendrick is calling on Department of Corrections Director David Shinn to suspend that copay during the coronavirus outbreak, which she says is a barrier to care.

“When we were in Florence we talked to multiple people who said they were having flu-like symptoms, coughs, fevers, but they weren’t reporting them because they couldn’t afford to go to the nurses line,” Kendrick said.

Kendrick called the conditions at Florence “filthy” and “a breeding ground for infectious disease.”

“Class members at ASPC-Florence, as at other prisons, reported that they are not provided basic disinfecting cleaning solutions,” Kendrick said. “Many reported that the only way they had to clean their cells or their bed area in a dorm was to use their personal supply of soap and shampoo, neither of which is effective in disinfecting hard surfaces.”

Kendrick said porters from several different yards told them cleaning supplies are watered down and they have not been given any instructions on how to clean any differently now that there is a serious threat of infection. Making sanitation even more difficult, inmates told the attorneys that a new policy from the Department of Corrections has resulted in indigent inmates being forced to pay for soap.

Kendrick said it is unclear how the Department of Corrections will deal with an infected population once coronavirus enters the prisons.

“The (Florence) prison has only three isolation/quarantine rooms available, all located in the infirmary, which are currently filled with patients who need that protected housing,” Kendrick wrote. She is calling for the release of “elderly people, persons convicted of nonviolent offenses, and others who present little or no risk to public safety.”

Correctional Officers Concerned

A correctional officer who asked not to be named for fear of retribution confirmed a shortage of sanitary items and cleaning materials in the facilities the officer has recently worked in.

“A lot of units have issues getting soap and paper towels stocked in the restrooms,” the officer said. “I have brought my own toilet paper for years. It seems that every yard I go to doesn’t have a sufficient amount of TP.”

Other officers took to Facebook to vent their fears and frustrations. In a private group for Arizona correctional officers, members complained of a lack of access to soap and hand sanitizer at prisons throughout the state.

Incarcerated People And Their Families Are Worried

An inmate who works as a porter at the Florence prison called Arizona the Department of Corrections' claims of sanitary conditions “a big, steamy plate of flapdoodle.”

“Once a week, I am given four quarts of watered-down disinfectant to clean a bunkhouse with 34 people living in it," the inmate wrote. “The chemicals barely last 2 days. They issue 1 scrub pad every 60 days, no disposable gloves or bleach. Each bunkhouse is a stew-pot for infection and disease"

The inmate, who KJZZ is not naming out of fear of retribution, grimly predicted that the coronavirus would “Eat the old, disabled, COPD, Alzheimer's patients for lunch when it crosses the razor wire."

Joe Watson, a spokesperson for the prison reform group American Friends Service Committee, said he has been in recent communication with several incarcerated people who are worried about the lack of planning.

“They have no protocol whatsoever,” Watson said. “They’re not getting any information inside. They’re just watching the news and getting more and more anxious.”

Watson said incarcerated people are used to having to look out for themselves.

“Everybody knows how terrible medical care is inside,” he said. “And so after a period of time, you start to realize that the prison is not going to take care of you. You just have to rely on those around you that you can trust and keep to yourself.”

Watson said inmates who work jobs in the community are not being tested as they reenter the prison. “People are not having their temperature taken when they come back in from jobs. Neither inmates nor staff seem to be going through any sort of precautions as they go in and out of the prisons.”

Department of Corrections Suspends Visitation

On Friday, the Department of Corrections announced it was suspending visitation at all Arizona prisons for 30 days. In a statement, the Department of Corrections said it was “communicating with staff and inmates about how they can reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, including washing hands, sanitizing surfaces, covering coughs and sneezes and encouraging employees to stay home if they are sick.”

The the Department of Corrections did not respond to detailed questions about the steps it is taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the prisons.

A spokesperson for Centurion said the company is “working closely with the Department of Corrections and local health departments to ensure our staff are prepared to quickly identify, isolate, and manage the possible spread of contagious illness in the correctional facilities that we serve.”

The Arizona Department of Health Services did not respond to requests to comment for this story. A spokesperson for Governor Doug Ducey said there were no plans to release any inmates early.

→  Read The Latest News On The Coronavirus Disease  

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.