PHOENIX — After county medical examiner’s offices confirmed two cases of an Arizona inmate dying from COVID-19, lawmakers and advocates are expressing concern about the absence of information from state officials.
“Why this information is being withheld is baffling,” said Attorney David Fathi, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “Other corrections agencies, the federal bureau of prisons, are disclosing this every day.”
The Associated Press broke the news about Joseph Assyd’s death from coronavirus Monday night. He was housed in the Tucson prison complex and died on April 12 after being transported to a local hospital in late March, online records show.
Unlike other states and the federal government, the Arizona Department of Corrections has not released any figures on the number of inmates who have died.
It’s unclear if other inmates have also died or have been hospitalized for COVID-19.
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office said an autopsy wasn’t completed on Assyd, which limits the amount of public record that would exist about his death.
The decision to not perform an autopsy was something Fathi said was unique.
“I cannot recall a single case where we had been told there is no medical examiner report because no autopsy was done,” said Fathi, who has been engaged in an ongoing healthcare lawsuit against ADC for eight years.
Rep. Athena Salman responded to an ABC15 report on social media Tuesday to say news of the death caught her by surprise.
“(Lawmakers) were told Friday by the department that there had been no deaths,” Salman tweeted to a reporter.
In response, the department released the following written statement:
"To date, we have not yet received such verification from the county medical examiner's office. Once the cause and manner of death is officially provided to ADCRR, the dashboard will reflect any deaths determined to be due to COVID-19. We are working to get this information as quickly as possible and continue to update the dashboard on a daily basis."
Arizona prison officials have tested only 0.46 percent of inmates for COVID-19, resulting in 47 positive cases.
The department has also unlawfully withheld vital data and information from the public, according to multiple top experts in public records and health laws.
Specifically, the state refuses to release the number of officers who reported positive tests and the locations where they work.
Fathi called the dearth of information an “ostrich-like level” of willful ignorance.
“If we don’t test people, then we can say oh we have no confirmed cases,” he said. “We are all in this together. if a prisoner has it today, and staff will have it tomorrow, and people in the community will have it the day after that.”
Prisons can become hubs for transmission in communities. And a criminal justice reform organization projects that Arizona’s prison system is set to have an explosion of cases.
“What we are projecting is that almost everyone in Arizona’s prisons could have the virus,” said Felicity Rose, a policy director with FWD.us. “We think many of those cases will be symptomatic.”
According to FWD.us, the group is relying on the Recidiviz COVID-19 Model for Incarceration which uses incarceration-specific measures of how COVID-19 would spread within a prison or jail, along with state data on incarcerated populations.
The model predicts more than 41,000 inmates and 3,100 staff will contract the virus, resulting in 360 deaths.
When asked if it’s reasonable to predict that 99% of inmates could contract COVID-19, Rose stated the prevalence of dormitory-style housing in Arizona prisons will be hotbeds for spread.
She also pointed to the Ohio prison system, which has tested every inmate in two of its facilities.
Ohio officials found that more than 80% of those inmates had the virus with the vast majority showing no symptoms.
“In one of those facilities, in Marion County, Ohio, it has also led to an outbreak in the community,” Rose said.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at firstname.lastname@example.org.