Advocates urge release of prisoners as Arizona fights coronavirus

As the coronavirus surfaces in Arizona prisons, advocates for inmates worry that they’re running out of time to persuade Gov. Doug Ducey to avoid a larger outbreak by releasing some of the 42,000 people who live in close quarters behind bars.

The Republican governor has insisted he won’t free prisoners in response to the pandemic, even as other states are reducing prison populations to increase social distancing behind bars and local authorities across Arizona have released at least 300 nonviolent inmates from county jails.

The urgency to release inmates rises each day as prison conditions worsen and the legal and political establishment moves too slowly to free medically vulnerable prisoners who could end up dying from the virus, said Joe Watson, a spokesman for the American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, which advocates for an end to mass incarceration.

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“Why do you think it’s OK to sentence folks to death who weren’t sentenced to death when they were sent to prison?” Watson asked, suggesting elected officials might not want to risk their tough-on-crime reputations with voters by freeing inmates.

Ducey has not explained why he won’t release inmates and no further details on his stance have been supplied by his office.

Corrections officials said they’re separating inmates with flu symptoms from the general prison population, providing soap to inmates for cleaning housing areas and practicing good hygiene, and waiving a $4 medical co-payment for inmates with cold and flu symptoms.

“The health and safety of staff, inmates and the communities we serve remains our top priority,” the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry said in a statement.

With COVID-19 cases expected to peak in Arizona within two weeks,17 state prison inmates have tested positive for the virus. A Maricopa County juvenile detention officer who contracted the virus has died. State prison employees have tested positive, though officials have declined to say how many.

Meanwhile, no cases have been reported among inmates or employees in county jails, where inmates have been released as part of prevention efforts, according to an informal survey by The Associated Press.

Maricopa County had the most releases at 159, followed by Coconino County with 100 and Pima County with 28. Releases also were made in Graham, Gila, Mohave, and Santa Cruz counties.

In addition, courts have temporarily suspended the sentences of Maricopa County inmates who were allowed to leave jail during the day to go to work. Some probation violators in Mohave County and child support offenders in Gila County were released. In addition, some sentencing hearings have been postponed and nonviolent suspects have been cited and released instead of taken into custody.

Authorities say they are taking unprecedented steps in response to the pandemic, not turning a blind eye to crime. They say they have no plans to free suspects in killings, assaults, and other violent acts.

Lawyers who represent inmates maintain state prisons are unprepared for a widespread outbreak, saying their clients have been given inadequate cleaning supplies and that health care operations in prisons suffer from a shortage of workers and limited infirmary space.

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier said he has no misgivings about housing fewer inmates. “These are unique times that require nontraditional thought,” he said.

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel said she understands the unease people might feel about releasing inmates prematurely. However, she stressed that prosecutors and judges are considering public safety and the rights of victims when agreeing to the releases.

Democratic Rep. Diego Rodriguez of Phoenix is seeking furloughs of inmates who are at least 60 and have serious health problems. The governor is making a calculated risk in refusing to release prisoners, he said.

If the virus hits hard, “I don’t think they will have another choice, especially when other states are doing it,” Rodriguez said about inmate releases.

Elsewhere, Washington state plans to release nearly 1,000 nonviolent prisoners while Kentucky is set to free 900 prisoners.

Arizona has more than 4,200 cases of the virus and has seen 150 deaths.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

In order to protect yourself from a possible infection, the CDC recommends: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

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