PHOENIX, AZ — FWD.us Arizona State Director Elissa Johnson issued the following statement to urge officials to reduce prison and jail populations in Arizona amid the COVID-19 pandemic:
“As this unprecedented COVID-19 public health crisis continues, Arizona’s state and local government cannot afford to wait a moment longer to take action to ensure the health and well-being of the approximately 55,000 people incarcerated in Arizona’s prisons and jails.
“Prisons and jails – by virtue of their design and operation – are incubators and accelerators of the transmission of COVID-19. Correctional employees across the country are testing positive every day, risking spread to incarcerated populations and forcing quarantines that impact facility staffing and the well-being of incarcerated individuals. Immediate action is necessary to protect the health of incarcerated people, facility employees, and the community.
“People locked up in America’s jails and prisons generally have increased underlying chronic health issues, are unable to access even the most basic medical care, and cannot practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. And, it’s no secret that most jails and prisons have struggled to meet very basic hygiene standards.
“Local officials in Arizona should follow the example of dozens of jurisdictions across the country working to reduce incarcerated populations by releasing individuals, and taking proactive measures to decrease the number of people entering jails and prisons in the first place. Voters support these efforts. Recent national polling shows broad support across ideological lines for state and local leaders to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated to slow the spread of the virus.
“The goal of flattening the curve through social distancing, business and school closures, and limiting gatherings cannot be fully achieved as long as tens of thousands of Arizonans remain confined in crowded facilities with minimal access to basic hygiene and healthcare. It is not too late to slow the spread of COVID-19, but it requires our state and local leaders to take immediate, bold action on criminal justice system reforms.”
In a single day this week, the number of known coronavirus cases in Arizona increased by 39%. Strategies to flatten the curve must include reduction of incarcerated populations, who are at increased risk given facilities’ physical plant and individuals’ inability to access basic hygiene, cleaning, and healthcare.
As recent national polling reveals, there is strong cross-ideological support for reducing the number of people in prisons and jails in the wake of the current pandemic. Sixty-six percent of likely voters, including 59% who identify as “very conservative,” believe elected officials should be working to reduce overcrowding as a response to coronavirus.
The well-documented poor conditions of Arizona’s jails and prisons make incarcerated individuals and facility employees vulnerable to outbreaks of disease, and necessitate immediate intervention by local and state leaders. For several years, Arizona’s state prison system has been mired in litigation regarding its prison healthcare system, but has long remained out of compliance with a federal court order to remedy the deficient prison healthcare system. In Arizona, about twelve percent of the prison population is 55 years or older, and especially vulnerable to COVID-19 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further, many incarcerated people suffer from underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.
Some counties, such as Coconino County, have taken action to release individuals charged with non-violent offenses. Pima County is also working to release individuals from its jail to reduce the spread of the virus. Action by other city and county officials in Arizona is imperative to address the public health crisis and protect incarcerated individuals, facility staff, and the community as a whole.
Even in the wake of this public health crisis, serious complaints about the physical conditions within Arizona’s prisons and the ability of the healthcare system to care for incarcerated individuals remain a serious concern. Currently, several people incarcerated in Arizona prisons are waiting on coronavirus test results. The transmission of the virus to people who are incarcerated is likely to come through the dozens of staff and vendors that cycle through facilities daily. Public health and correctional health experts agree that jails and prisons will serve as dangerous incubators of COVID-19 because of the crowded spaces, inadequate conditions, and inability to ensure basic hygiene and cleaning of the facilities.