Yuma Inmates Allege Prison Officials Ordered Them To Refuse COVID-19 Testing To Keep Numbers Down

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Friday, August 21, 2020 - 2:25pm
Updated: Monday, August 24, 2020 - 7:44am

Arizona Department of Corrections building
Arizona Department of Corrections
Arizona Department of Corrections building in Phoenix.

Inmates at the Yuma prison say they were threatened with violence and ordered by prison officials to refuse COVID-19 testing to keep outbreak numbers artificially low.

The Arizona Department of Corrections recently began conducting mass testing of all inmates across the entire state prison system, resulting in a rapid increase of COVID-19 positive cases being reported.

But before testing was scheduled to begin at the Yuma prison, inmates there say prison administrators and staff, working with informal inmate leaders called “Heads,” led a campaign of threats and intimidation to keep the rest of the inmates from submitting to the mandatory nasal swabs.

Stephanie Hale-Perry’s husband is incarcerated at the Yuma prison. She says he called her with concerns when the testing was first announced.

“The inmate leaders in his yard said that all inmates were to refuse the test, otherwise they were going to get a beat-down,” Hale-Perry said. She said the threats came after inmate Heads met with the deputy warden, correctional officers, and members of the special services investigation unit at the Yuma prison.

Two correctional officers who work at Yuma confirmed to KJZZ the meeting took place. Neither would identify themselves publicly out of fear of retaliation. One of the officers said they believed the administration was encouraging the inmate Heads to get the rest of the inmates to refuse testing, so there would be fewer positive results, and the prison yards could be reopened sooner.

“The prison administrators told the Heads ‘make sure the people in your building or in your run don’t get tested,’” Hale-Perry said. “They were threatened with getting beat up. They used violence and other threats as the scare tactic to prevent the testing from happening.”

Hale-Perry said her husband believes he and other inmates were threatened against testing for COVID-19 to keep the number of cases at the prison artificially low.

She said the inmates ultimately accepted the testing, because so many of them, including her husband, are concerned about their health.

“I’m extremely upset,” Hale-Perry said. “The Department of Corrections is playing politics with my husband’s life.”

She said her husband and other inmates were able to persuade the rest of the population to comply with the testing, despite the threats.

Suzanne McMillan’s son was also threatened against getting tested for COVID-19. Incarcerated at the Yuma prison, she says he watched the inmate Heads meet with the Department of Corrections employees before all of the inmates were told not to participate in the testing.

“The heads came into the inmate bays where they live with an SSU officer, and they told everyone ‘Do not test,’” she said. “They were told, if they accepted the testing, they would be shipped off to a different yard, lose all their possessions, and not be able to contact family members.”

McMillan said her son believes the department wanted to be able to say that inmates had refused the testing in an attempt to keep the reports of positive results down.

“I’m just so disheartened in the way ADC is responding to this crisis,” McMillan said. “I don’t trust what they do. I don’t trust what they say. I don’t believe they have the inmates’ best interests at heart.”

But McMillan said her son stood up against the intimidation. She said after the inmates were able to access news reports of testing results from other prisons in Arizona, the Yuma inmates decided it was in their best interest to participate in the testing.

Arizona Department of Corrections spokesperson Bill Lamoreaux confirmed 4,500 inmates were recently tested at the Yuma prison, and that eight inmates had refused the testing. Lamoreaux called the allegations of threats against testing “unsubstantiated.”

“ADCRR takes such allegations seriously,” Lamoreaux said. “If you have any information about credible threats, we ask you to forward them to us so they can be investigated.”

A woman KJZZ is calling Avery Contreras says her husband, an inmate at Yuma, was also threatened to refuse testing. Contreras asked to remain anonymous to protect her husband.

“The inmates were told by a correctional officer that if they agreed to the testing, they’d be moved to another yard and lose their bunk,” Contreras said. “They felt like it was a scare tactic, because ADC was listing all these repercussions that would happen if they complied with the testing.”

Contreras said her husband believes they were told not to test because “the fewer people they tested, the fewer positive results they would get back, and their numbers wouldn’t look as bad as they actually are.”

“He was very uncomfortable with the situation,” Contreras said. “He and his friends decided they were willing to take any backlash that might come because they are fearing for their lives.”

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