Open Memo Re: Reducing exposure to COVID-19 in the incarcerated population

Governor Doug Ducey
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone

From: Arizona Science Policy Network
Date: October 1, 2020
Re: Reducing exposure to COVID-19 in the incarcerated population

Summary Recommendation

In Arizona, the incarcerated, facility staff, and residents of surrounding communities face unique challenges in protecting themselves against COVID-19. As federal public health guidelines are not completely met, the most effective way of reducing the incarcerated population’s exposure to, transmission of, and death from COVID-19 is to immediately reduce the population density in facilities.

Significance of Impact

As of October 1, Arizona ranks 12th in the number of total COVID-19 deaths in prisons (28 total deaths, or 7 deaths per 100,000 prisoners). The number of known cases per 10,000 prisoners is 118% higher than cases in Arizona overall [1]. The majority of COVID-19 clusters in Arizona are connected to Arizona State Prison Complexes, including 305 cases in the Phoenix complex and 264 in the Lewis complex in Buckeye [2].

Inmates are 3 times more likely to die from and 5.5 times more likely to become infected by COVID-19 [3]. The risk of exposure and transmission is exacerbated by close quarters within facilities. Cells should have at least 25 square feet of unencumbered space per person [4], which does not permit social distancing at the recommended 6-foot distance between individuals. Additionally, the effectiveness of social distancing is greatly dependent on complementary practices such as mask-wearing, which is currently not required in Arizona for all incarcerated individuals [5]. According to the Prison Law Office, ADCRR and Centurion remain non-compliant or not transparent regarding frequency of disinfection, accessibility of COVID-19-related information, quarantining of new intakes, frequency of changing masks, and transferring those with positive cases from one unit or complex to another [6].

In response to the pandemic, jail/prison populations were initially reduced across the country. For example, Maricopa County saw a nearly 30% reduction in the jail population between the beginning of the pandemic and April 24 [7]. However, reductions across Arizona have leveled off or reversed altogether. Reductions in incarcerated and detained populations must be continued consistently throughout the entirety of the pandemic.

Recommendation Description

  1. Immediately give court orders to release those in prisons located in Maricopa County who have already been granted clemency.
  2. Immediately release those in jails held on non-violent charges, as was done in Coconino County [8].
  3. Immediately release those held in ICE detention centers who do not have criminal convictions.

Policy Trade-Offs

Administrators in ICE, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Arizona State Prison Complexes, and Maricopa County must balance concerns of public safety with public health. For example, the Maricopa County Attorney and Sheriff initially prioritized releasing those “not considered to be a risk to the community” [7], while ICE is moving back to pre-pandemic scales of operations despite the pandemic continuing as usual, putting officers, migrants, and the detained at risk [9]. Releasing the incarcerated involves risk of COVID-19 transmission to the public in that the incarcerated would likely be transferred from conditions of incomplete adherence to CDC guidelines. However, those who are already infected will be able to recover and prevent spread if in proper isolation outside of carceral facilities.

Next Steps

The success of this policy recommendation depends on it being followed until a COVID-19 vaccine is made widely available to the public, as well as to the incarcerated. Releasing non-violent offenders could reduce the incarcerated population by another 30%, allowing more inmates and detainees to maintain sufficient social distance.

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