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Supporters Hold Prayer Vigil At Perryville As COVID-19 Spreads In Arizona Prisons

Families and supporters of women incarcerated at the Perryville prison in Goodyear held a vigil on Sunday to show their support and ask for their loved ones to be released as COVID-19 spreads through Arizona prisons. 

It was  the latest effort by organizers working to reduce populations in Arizona prisons as COVID-19 spreads to more facilities.

Diane Ovalle said the actions are necessary to bring attention to a looming crisis in the prisons.

“We need to keep applying the pressure and we need to keep mobilizing," Ovalle said. "People are dying, and we’re forced to be inside, but right now it’s a time we have to activate. We have to be out.”

Ovalle said the pandemic has brought attention to a criminal justice system with a history of problems.

"People were suffering inside these cages even before COVID-19," Ovalle said.

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Hundreds of incarcerated women screamed and shouted in appreciation as a long car caravan drove past the yards of the Perryville prison.

As correctional officers forced the women inside to their dorms, a group of supporters congregated on the side of the road by the prison, which houses more than 4,000 women.

Holly Woods is the organizer of the vigil and was formerly incarcerated at Perryville.

"I'll never forget what it felt like to wear orange," Woods said to a crowd of supporters. "It's a different kind of feeling to put that uniform on. And it's also a different kind of feeling to take it off. And to know that you never have to wear it again. And that's what we're here for tonight."

She says the Arizona Department of Corrections has failed to protect inmates from COVID-19.

“So now it’s time to let them go," Woods said. "Let them come home, where we can take care of our people.”

As of Monday, 47 inmates have tested positive at five different state prisons.

Lisa White said she was at the vigil to support her son whoa was incarcerated at a young age.

"I stand here tonight because I'm an impacted mother and I want to amplify my son's voice."

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She said she wanted to see more accountability from Department of Corrections Director Shinn and Gov. Doug Ducey.

"People don't understand that there's not a licensed doctor on each yard," White said, "there's only medical assistance. How are they going to diagnose the virus when it becomes a crisis? It's going to be to late."

One woman said prison officials are endangering her incarcerated daughter by not wearing face masks or following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“They’re sentenced already," the woman said. "They’re doing their time. Who gives them the right to sentence them to death?”

The group says they will be back every Sunday until their loved ones can come home.

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Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.