We, the clergy and faith leaders of Pima County Interfaith and Arizona Interfaith Network congregations and institutions throughout the state, express our grave concern for the welfare of all impacted persons within our prison community and their families. There is presently no population more vulnerable than the incarcerated in the COVID-19 crisis. It is imperative that you use your powers in this emergency to take bold and humanitarian actions that will halt an explosive spread of the virus in Arizona prisons.
We watch in horror as the virus overtakes our prison communities. We fear that the recent announcement about the positive results of 517 inmates, half the population, at Whetstone in Tucson is an omen of the conditions throughout the state’s prisons. Through our relationships with inmates and their families in our communities, we have received a relentless and heartbreaking stream of reports of inmates being placed in harm’s way, released without being tested, and unable to obtain testing and needed care.
While we understand that you have begun to take some constructive steps towards preserving the lives of those in your charge, the urgent moment is here. Whatever slight gains our state is seeing with the leveling off of the virus will be drastically upended by the catastrophic spread within the prison system. Prison outbreaks will add to the surge of patients needing critical care, overwhelming our hospitals, particularly our extremely vulnerable rural facilities. And then it will return widely to our communities, and keeping schools and businesses closed.
We implore you to take these immediate steps to mitigate the risks for all:
- Immediately implement a universal testing blitz to test all inmates and staff within three weeks. The current plan is proceeding too slowly. Prisoners, employees and the families of both are suffering and, in some cases, dying.
Expedite compassionate early release of selected inmates to reduce both prison crowding and the spread of the virus.Do this in a secure manner consistent with public safety as is being done by other state and federal corrections agencies. That could include people who are over 60, those with underlying health conditions and/or are nearing their release date. To protect the health of those both inside and outside the prisons, it is imperative we lessen the current crowding to ensure inmates and correctional officers can live and work at least 6 feet apart.
- Develop a quarantine system for outgoing prisoners who may have been exposed to Covid-19 before they return to their families and communities,
and accelerate Medicaid enrollmentfor those re-entering society so that they have immediate access to health care and do not delay treatment post-release should they become ill.
- Provide adequate PPE.It is now a requirement in our lives and should be drastically increased in availability within the prison community. Everyone is entitled to a safe place to live and work.
We ask you to use a portion of the state’s substantial CARES Act resources towards these ends. What happens in the prisons will inevitably make it back into our communities to stress the wider public health crisis in Arizona. Failure to deploy drastic interventions poses a major threat to public health and economic recovery.
We urge you as stewards of the health of the people of Arizona, to take the actions listed above. Our collective well-being is dependent upon your actions.