Pima County Urges Public Health Officials To Reduce Prison Populations

By Harry Croton
Published: Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 3:36pm

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Representatives of Pima County are urging public health officials and the Arizona Department of Corrections to reduce prison populations in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Community leaders made a call to action Wednesday after several requests sent to the DOC and the Governor’s Office were ignored.

Arizona has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country, and crowded prisons in areas like Pima County have made physical distancing guidelines virtually impossible to follow.

Lillian Coppess is with the Arizona START project — Striving To Achieve Reform Together — a prison reform advocacy group.

She says it receives several emails a day from inmates and staff.

“Social distancing is not possible in prison, and on top of that, they tell us that they are getting penalized if they wear a mask," Coppess said. "Some of our people inside are making their own masks with old shirts because they're trying to protect themselves.”

Coppess says sick inmates are being treated unfairly, and some units aren’t allowing masks, despite hosting large groups in small quarters.

“How can they social distance when they are being obligated to eat together, and when they are being obligated to go to medical to take care of their pills two times a day, and to chow — to the dining hall — in groups of hundreds?” Coppess said.

Inmates are referring to prison quarantine systems as “the hole” — a cell where they are left with no medical treatment or belongings.

This is leading to further confusion over the accuracy of COVID-19 prison data.

"People who have symptoms are not telling them they are sick because they are so afraid of being sent to the hole instead of being treated medically," Coppess said.

Once the county receives a response, possible ways to reduce prison populations are inmate furloughs, early release or transfers to a different facility.

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