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Inmates: Arizona lacks adequate coronavirus plan in prisons

March 17, 2020 GMT
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A closed sign hangs in the door of a Converse shoe store Monday, March 15, 2020, in Phoenix as a maintenance worker passes by. Nike, which owns Converse, is closing all of its stores in the U.S., along with other parts of the world, to try to curb the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Matt York)
1 of 14
A closed sign hangs in the door of a Converse shoe store Monday, March 15, 2020, in Phoenix as a maintenance worker passes by. Nike, which owns Converse, is closing all of its stores in the U.S., along with other parts of the world, to try to curb the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX (AP) — Attorneys representing the 34,000 inmates in Arizona’s prisons asked a judge Monday to order the state to develop an adequate plan for confronting the new coronavirus behind bars, arguing housing conditions and the state’s lack of preparation put the lives of older prisoners with chronic illnesses at risk.

The lawyers said they saw medically fragile inmates crowded in dirty and unventilated dorms and tents during a visit last week at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. They said corrections officials and the state’s health care provider for prisoners “had no articulable plan for managing and preventing the spread of the virus.”

The Department of Corrections, Reentry and Rehabilitation said it has taken steps to reduce the potential spread of the virus, such as suspending visitation at state prisons for at least 30 days and suspending a $4 copayment on inmates who seek medical help for cold and flu symptoms.

Officials say 18 cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Arizona, up from 13 on Sunday. No cases have reported in state prisons.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday urged people to avoid large St. Patrick’s Day parties but stopped short of recommending the widespread closures of bars, restaurants and gathering places to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

“If you’re thinking of going out to a crowded bar to celebrate, our advice is, don’t,” Ducey said in a news conference with top elected officials and health authorities.

Ducey urged the public to follow the advice of health authorities to maintain distance from others, but he’s so far avoided more invasive steps taken by governors of other states, such as the recommended or mandated closure of social spaces.

“We’re not at that point,” Ducey said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman have issued a statewide closure of schools for the next two weeks. They urged parents to keep children at home, noting the school closures won’t stop the spread of the disease.

The state’s three major universities all announced they would conduct online instruction for the rest of the semester. They initially planned to go online-only for a minimum of two weeks.

And many schools across metro Phoenix on Monday provided curbside breakfast and lunch for students who rely on meal programs.

On Monday, Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Brutinel temporarily required judges to limit in-person hearings by holding proceedings with telephone and video conferences. Judges can limit access to in-court hearings to everyone except attorneys, parties, victims and court employees.

Lawyers for the Arizona inmates said their clients haven’t adequately been instructed on how to guard against the virus and that the health care system within the prisons suffers from a shortage of workers and limited infirmary space.

They said the prisoners weren’t given disinfectants to scrub their cells or bed space and instead were told to use soap or shampoo for such cleaning — supplies that the prisoners must buy themselves.

Corene Kendrick, an attorney for the inmates, said the medically fragile clients acknowledged their vulnerability to the virus. “Most of them are resigned that when the coronavirus gets there, it’s going to wipe everyone out,” Kendrick said. “It was frankly heartbreaking.”

The inmates asked U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver to order the state to work on a coronavirus plan with a court-appointed health care adviser. They also asked the judge to suspend charges for soap and other hygiene products and lift the ban on alcohol-based hand sanitzers.

The corrections department on Monday announced the suspension of the $4 copays for inmates with flu and cold symptoms after the prisoners’ lawyers complained their clients were reluctant to seek care, given that some of them earn as little as 10 cents per hour.

The agency said it was following communicable disease protocols, instructing sick employees to stay at home and telling inmates how to reduce the risk by washing their hands, cleaning the surfaces around them and covering their mouths when coughing and sneezing.

“The health and safety of our staff and inmates at the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry is of paramount concern,” said agency spokeswoman Judy Keane.

The request for a court order requiring the state to develop an adequate coronavirus plan was made in a 7-year-old class-action lawsuit that challenged the quality of health care in Arizona’s prisons.

Centurion of Arizona, the state’s provider of prison health care, didn’t return a phone call and email seeking comment on the criticism made by the prisoners’ lawyers. The company isn’t a party to the class-action lawsuit.