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Arizona Will Prioritize People Who Live And Work In State Prisons For Vaccination

As vaccinations begin to roll out across the nation, Arizona is prioritizing people who live and work in state prisons. Several state prisons have recently experienced large COVID-19 outbreaks. Nearly 7,000 inmates and staff have been infected since the beginning of the pandemic.

Barbara Allison is concerned about her boyfriend. "He has asthma. He has AFib. And he has congestive heart failure,” she said. And he’s currently detained at the center of a massive COVID-19 outbreak at the state prison in Douglas.

“We know what could happen if he did get the symptoms," she said. "He wouldn’t make it through.”

Because of his increased risk for health complications, Allison’s boyfriend is in a prioritized group of individuals who will be among the first Arizonans to be vaccinated.

When asked about the importance of vaccinating inmates in Arizona prisons, Gov. Doug Ducey said it was the state’s responsibility to see to the health care needs of incarcerated people.

“We want to make sure that people, when they are serving their time and paying their debt to society, that they can do so in the safest possible way," Ducey said. "Of course, prison is a very tough place.”

And Ducey acknowledged that the pandemic has created even greater challenges for the Department of Corrections.

In recent weeks, both the Eyman and Douglas prisons have experienced large outbreaks. More than 600 inmates recently tested positive  at the Yuma prison — more than half of a unit there.

But the state says vaccines are on the way. The Arizona Department of Health Services is planning for three phases of vaccinations, the first of which starts this week.

Health care workers employed in the prisons and jails, correctional and detention officers and incarcerated people are all included in the first phase.

DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ said the prison health care workers will be vaccinated first, in phase 1A, with the rest of the health care population.

Correctional and detention officers will be vaccinated in phase 1B with the protective services occupations.

“Inmates or detainees with medical conditions that puts them at high risks for serious outcomes will be vaccinated during 1B as adults that have high risk medical conditions living in congregate settings,” Christ said.

The Arizona Department of Corrections says its health care provider identified a population of approximately 6,600 vulnerable inmates based on their age, health status and diagnoses that fall into that high-risk category.

All other incarcerated people will be vaccinated in phase 1C.

A spokesperson for the governor said phase 1B is scheduled for late January or early February, and the rest of the phases will follow in the spring and summer.

The Prison Policy Initiative recently published a study that found  a majority of the states surveyed are prioritizing incarcerated people, but 12 states are not. Prison Policy Initiative spokesperson Wanda Bertram says like Arizona, many states are prioritizing correctional staff over inmates, which will still leave incarcerated people vulnerable.

“It’s not enough to just vaccinate staff," Bertram said, "because, unfortunately, there are ways that the virus can get into the prison besides just staff coming in.”

"It’s not enough to just vaccinate staff because, unfortunately, there are ways that the virus can get into the prison besides just staff coming in." — Wanda Bertram, Prison Policy Initiative spokesperson

Employees who work for prison food contractors  have been a vector for the spread of the virus in Arizona, and  recent testing shows the virus is already present in active cases at most prisons.

Arizona is one of several states with vaccination guidelines that do not specifically mention incarcerated people. But Bertram says it’s important to make this distinction in writing.

"Typically the public is not thinking about people in prison, when they think about things like a public health crisis," Bertram said. "All too often we see people in prison being left behind so we need states to be really specific on that.”

Gov. Ducey and Department of Corrections Director David Shinn said  they would not take steps to reduce the prison population in response to COVID-19. The department has instead attempted to use testing and quarantining to stop the spread.

But health care workers and correctional officers in the prisons report the mitigation efforts have been flawed. They say inmates with the coronavirus are consistently transported and housed with healthy inmates, exposing the large populations of incarcerated people who live in dormitory style settings.

Thirty-three inmates have died from COVID-19 in Arizona prisons since the beginning of the pandemic.

Allison is hoping that Arizona will keep its word on prioritizing her boyfriend, so he doesn’t meet a similar fate.

“They are human," Allison said. "I know that some have been given the death penalty, but my loved one has not been given the death penalty.”

She just wants him to be able to serve his time and come home.

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