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Arizona prison insiders fear COVID-19 outbreak

Posted at 7:22 PM, Mar 20, 2020

Inmates, families, and staff from across the Arizona state prison system continue to express a growing concern about the corrections department’s ability to handle a coronavirus outbreak.

RELATED: Union leaders, advocates criticize DOC plan for preventing coronavirus in prisons

ABC15 has received dozens of messages in recent days that highlight similar issues: Widespread filth inside the prisons, unprepared staff, and a lack of basic cleaning and hygiene supplies.

Advocates and attorneys said they have also been flooded with calls and emails.

“We’ve had dozens of responses from folks. I want to say close to 70 right now,” said Joe Watson, with the advocacy group American Friends Service Committee of Arizona (AFSC). “And they’re continuing to come to us because they can’t get answers from the department of corrections.”

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry has said they have a robust plan in place to prevent and manage any outbreak of COVID-19.

RELATED: Arizona Department of Corrections releases COVID-19 prevention actions

Attorneys for the state were forced to publicly release their plans after two legal organizations, the Prison Law Office and the ACLU of Arizona, filed an emergency motion in federal court earlier this week.

The plan includes the following actions:

  • A suspension of all visitation, legal and non-legal
  • A waiver of co-pays for inmates who need medical attention for cold and flu-like symptoms
  • Free hand soap to all inmates upon request
  • Weekly deep cleaning of all facilities
  • All employees entering prison complexes will undergo disease symptom checks via a questionnaire.

But inmates and staff have reported that there is little or no soap or supplies to complete the so-called deep cleanings.

In one cleaning checklist obtained by ABC15, it lists several types of cleaning products that are to be used. Except, sources said they don’t have any of those products.

“I mean for the love of God. They are giving us bleach in a bottle. One bottle with bleach in it, and they’re telling you guys that they have a robust plan to deep clean in the pods,” said correctional officer union leader Carlos Garcia in an interview Thursday. “(We have) barely any gloves, no masks, no suits. So, no, not adequate.”

Arizona has a long history of failing to provide a constitutional level of healthcare to inmates. The state has been sanctioned and fined by a federal judge as part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit.

Photos included with the recent emergency motion reveal crowded inmate living quarters and filthy bathrooms that lack soap.

Worried about a likely outbreak and the prison’s ability to respond, advocates from multiple local organizations have called on state leaders to reduce the prison population.

“Will those who are vulnerable, have chronic care issues or have little time left on their sentence be released?” Watson asked.

Officials in other cities, counties, and states have announced plans to release some prisoners from jails and prisons. The National Conference of State Legislators also suggested releasing people when possible and reducing arrests for minor crimes.

On Friday, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel issued a statement saying her prosecutors would consider ways to limit the number of incarcerated people.

When asked if the state would consider a larger plan during a press conference, Governor Doug Ducey said no.

“We’re going to do every precaution necessary to protect public health, whether that person is an inmate or a citizen. We’ve issued the guidance. There’s nothing in addition to that,” Ducey said.

Sources have told ABC15 that there are multiple sick patients in multiple prisons - some with fevers exhibiting symptoms.

An outbreak in state prisons carries a larger public health risk.

Thousands of employees enter and exit prison complexes every day. Low-security inmates also leave for work crews.

“There are men and women (inmates) who go to a central hub, and they’re making and wrapping sandwiches that (the public) can buy at QT,” Watson said.

On Friday, Watson also told ABC15 that an prisoner reported that members his work crew assigned to a different detail were exposed to an outside employee who has tested positive for COVID-19.

A corrections department spokesperson issued an update Friday morning saying the department has “no known confirmed cases of COVID-19 virus.”

However, officials have not directly answered multiple questions in email that asked whether any inmates have actually been tested.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at