PRESS RELEASE: Call on Corrections Director to assure health and safety of staff and inmates
Rep. Kirsten Engel D-Tucson (District 10) Rep. Diego Rodriguez D-Phoenix (District 27) Rep. Domingo DeGrazia D-Tucson (District 10) Rep. Jennifer Pawlik D-Chandler (District 17) FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 31, 2020
AZ House Dems call on Corrections Director to assure health and safety of staff and inmates amid COVID-19 risk
State needs furlough plan for elderly and vulnerable offenders
PHOENIX- In a letter delivered Monday, Democratic members of the Arizona House Judiciary Committee on Monday called on Director of Arizona Department of Corrections David Shinn, to take immediate steps to safeguard the health and safety of the staff and inmates from the risk of an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in Arizona's prison facilities.
The House members have received reports that sick inmates are not receiving adequate medical attention, that basic CDC recommendations on sanitation and social distancing are not being observed and that the Department has been selling toilet paper, purchased for inmates, to its own employees at wholesale cost.
"Families of persons incarcerated are reaching out to us – they are afraid for their loved ones in prison," said Rep. Kirsten Engel, D Tucson, ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee. "Were the virus to spread within our prisons, it would be a public health disaster. We need immediate confirmation that the Department is following CDC recommendations to prevent transmission of the virus and a plan to furlough elderly and vulnerable prisoners, for their safety and to make space for quarantining others."
In their letter (attached), the House members asked for confirmation and supporting evidence that the Department is taking basic precautions at the prisons it oversees, and that it is requiring such oversight by the private contractors with respect to the state's private prison facilities on such basic items as providing adequate soap and toilet paper to inmates and providing detailed information to inmates and staff on best practices for social distancing.
"Governor Ducey is ultimately responsible for the operation of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation," said Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix. "Tens of thousands of Arizonans are in the dark about right now about how the department of handling the COVID-19 public health emergency. The people of Arizona deserve open and transparent communication from the Governor and the department in these stressful times."
In their letter, the members noted that states and counties across the country are taking measures to release categories of vulnerable inmates to protect their health and to open space within prison facilities for the quarantining of infected persons. The letter states that " Arizona should lead on this issue by crafting its own plan to reduce the number of prisoners currently incarcerated in its facilities" and recommends that the Department:
1. Enter agreements with county governments to reduce, if not halt, the intake of new inmates to the state prison system during the COVID-19 crisis - an action that has already been taken in other states.
2. Furlough of the following inmates:
a. inmates over the age of 60;
b. inmates with a documented health conditions that render them at higher risk of death should they become infected with the COVID-19 virus
c. inmates currently incarcerated for non-violent felonies.
3. Develop a plan for authorizing the Compassionate or Medically Necessary release of at-risk inmates who are 60 or older and have underlying health conditions.
Rep. Domingo DeGrazia, D-Tucson, who with Rep. Rodriguez served on the House's Ad-Hoc Committee on Earned Release Credits last fall, sees the Department's lack of accountability to the people as the major flaw in the Department's response to the risks posed by the pandemic.
"When the public, and mostly importantly, the families, of the incarcerated, are not informed or consulted with respect to what is going on within the prison walls, rumors spread and ill-informed decisions are made that cannot be easily reversed," DeGrazia said.
Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, is vitally concerned for the health of the 9,000 staff members and 42,000 inmates in the state prison system.
"The virus threatens to compound the challenges the Department is already facing providing adequate healthcare to inmates," Pawlik said. "We need to know how the Department plans to safeguard staff and inmates should the virus spread within the prison walls."