Previously, that distinction belonged to the Whetstone unit in the state prison complex in Tuscon, where ADCRR announced on August 4, 2020, that 517 of the 1,066 prisoners held there had tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. Those test results immediately caused a 72 percent spike in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among ADCRR prisoners.
The agency said prisoners testing positive were “being housed separately from the rest of the unit.” It added that “comprehensive inmate services, including meals, required medication, and medical services are being brought directly to their housing location.”
“They will not be allowed back into the general population until they have been medically cleared,” ADCRR promised.
After the Tucson outbreak, Corene Kendrick, staff attorney for the California-based Prison Law Office, said she was “not surprised” because the Whetstone unit “is a dormitory where it’s just impossible for the men to practice social distancing.”
On July 24, 2020, prisoners at the minimum-custody facility had staged a peaceful walkout to protest the department’s lackluster response to COVID-19. The prisoners asked to be placed on lockdown and have meals delivered to them in their housing areas to slow the spread of the disease. They also asked for universal testing, not just for those prisoners who exhibited symptoms.
In marked contrast to the way most prisoner protests develop, staff members talked with prisoners about their concerns during the walkout, and the talks continued the next morning. The walkout ended peacefully, and the administration agreed to place the prison on lockdown for two weeks with meals delivered to the dormitories and all the prisoners to be tested as soon as possible. It was the results of that agreed-upon testing that showed nearly half of the prisoners were infected with COVID-19.
But ADCRR’s response had been sluggish since the pandemic began. Prisoners were not provided with fabric face masks for several months, finally receiving them on July 2, 2020. That was not long after the June 2020 announcement by state Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ that prisoner testing for COVID-19 would begin.
Staff in housing areas have now been given more extensive personal protection equipment, including N95 masks, face shields, gowns and gloves. Other staff members have been required to wear cloth face masks since July 15, 2020. ADCRR also promised that “rigorous cleaning,” which “was already in place,” had been “heightened as a result of the test results.”
According to the agency’s COVID-19 dashboard, only 18 percent, or 7,121 of its 39,262 prisoners had been tested for the disease as of August 3, 2020. Of those, 890 had tested positive — a positivity rate of 12.5 percent — and six had succumbed to the disease. Adding in the results from Whetstone pushed the total number of tests to 8,187, representing 21 percent of prisoners, with 1,407 positive results, a positivity rate of 17.2 percent.
As of December 9, 2020, the dashboard recorded that every ADCRR inmate had been tested — a total of 43,202 tests, with 4,295 positive results, a positivity rate of 11.3 percent. There have been 26 prisoner deaths confirmed to the disease, with another six deaths awaiting confirmation by health officials.
A recent research letter from Johns Hopkins University and UCLA’s Behind Bars Data Project determined that prisoners are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 and five-and-a-half times more likely to become infected with the disease than the U.S. population at large. The researchers found that the infection rate for prisoners was 3,251 per 100,000, while it was just 587 per 100,000 in the non-incarcerated population.
In March 2020, U.S. Attorney General William Barr instructed officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to increase the use of home confinement for older prisoners and those whose underlying medical conditions put them at increased risk of death or serious complications from COVID-19. As a result, BOP has reduced its in-custody population by more than 7,000 prisoners. A few other jurisdictions have reacted to the crisis by releasing vulnerable prisoners through parole or furlough, but Arizona is not one of them.
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