Manuel Lopez is a 38-year-old inmate at the Whetstone Unit in the state prison in Tucson, which is now notorious for its severe COVID-19 outbreak.
As he tells it, prison staff is to blame.
In a 22-page letter that included a detailed timeline of events and a series of emails that was provided to New Times, Lopez described the prison staff’s sluggish response to the pandemic, and a prison environment that is on-edge and overwhelmed. In early August, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (DOC) announced that 517 of the unit’s roughly 1,000 inmates had tested positive. The Tucson prison that houses the Whetstone Unit has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases of any prison in Arizona, according to state data.
Lopez, who is serving a four-and-a-half year sentence for an aggravated DUI conviction, was one of the inmates who contracted COVID-19 in recent weeks. He’s experienced a litany of symptoms.
“I have been battling it for weeks now, some days better than others,” he wrote. “I have chest pains, headaches for days on end, fatigue, loss of appetite and taste and smell, cough with mucus, and muscle soreness.”
Lopez blames the DOC’s handling of the pandemic for the severity of the outbreak.
“This outbreak is a direct result of a failure to act proactively and gross incompetence of the unit staff,” he wrote. “I personally have heard staff members say things like ‘masks don’t work’, ‘it’s [COVID-19] no big deal’, ‘stop crying, it’s just like the flu’.”
For months, the Arizona DOC has faced criticism for its handling of the pandemic. Back in March, prison workers took to social media to voice concerns about the lack of hand sanitizer and masks in state facilities, while attorneys noted that the agency lacked a substantive comprehensive response to the escalating pandemic. Visitations were suspended back in March to guard against the spread of COVID-19, but the staff wasn’t required to wear masks until early June. Meanwhile, the number of prison inmates and staff members who were testing positive for COVID-19 was increasing. The DOC also resisted releasing information regarding the number of prison officers who had tested positive.
“Their response has been abysmal,” said Donna Leon Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform and a former judge. “They didn’t provide masks until four-and-a-half months into the virus, there’s absolutely no social distancing and that’s, well, you could say that’s not their fault but there’s no legitimate quarantining of people and now at the Whetstone Unit the situation is so out of control that they can’t possible quarantine everyone.”
The DOC did not respond to New Times’ requests for comment on some of the allegations made in Lopez’ correspondence, despite indicating that they would do so. In an August 4 news release, the agency stated, “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department has taken significant actions to mitigate the risk and impacts of COVID-19 in its facilities. Keeping our staff, inmates and communities safe continues to be our top priority.”
In an August 14 interview with KTAR News, DOC Director David Shinn attributed the spike in cases to increased testing in state prisons, as well as new inmate admissions and the flow of prison staff in and out of facilities: “With increased testing, we were fully aware that we would see increased positives,” he said.
As Lopez tells it, the agency’s response to COVID-19 inside the Whetstone Unit was both chaotic and sluggish. Lopez claimed that on April 3, inmates were told by prison officials that they were not allowed to wear homemade masks and that they could face “disciplinary action,” such as “restitution for destroying property,” if they were caught with a homemade mask. He added that it wasn’t until July 1 that inmates were allowed to wear face coverings. (Inmates were provided with face masks on July 2, according to a DOC news release.)
There were also several instances in which prison staffers tested positive, or were exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, and inmates who came into contact with them weren’t tested or quarantined, according to Lopez.
“At this point, the failures from D.O.C have resulted in almost a complete infection of the inmate community,” he wrote. “The mistakes that have been made cannot be undone.”
As early as July 8, Lopez wrote, the majority of the inmate population in the Whetstone unit was “experiencing symptoms, coughing, sneezing, headaches, fatigue, runny nose, nausea, loss of taste and smell, loss of appetite, and aching body.”
While prison officials encouraged inmates to socially distance, Lopez wrote that the directions were “laughable” due to the fact that inmates live in a “warehouse type environment” with bunks and cubicles clustered close together. “Social distancing is literally impossible,” he wrote.
Staff finally began implementing widespread testing of inmates at the Whetstone Unit in late March, Lopez wrote, but they botched quarantine procedures. Inmates who eventually tested positive were housed with inmates in dorms for those who hadn’t contracted the virus because staff read their results “incorrectly.” Inmates have been told that they will not be re-tested, prompting fears that they could contract the virus yet again, Lopez wrote.
He also claimed that the prison staff is not mandated to undergo COVID-19 testing, and that staff members don’t take the virus seriously.
“The residents of Whetstone will never be safe from exposure to the virus if testing of staff remains optional,” Lopez wrote. “Those who do not believe the virus is a real threat will not take precautions to not contract it [and] will come to the unit infected. The administration must be held accountable for subjecting a vulnerable community who is unable to exercise social distancing and care for their own health … to a deadly virus as a result of their own failures and complacency.”
Now, inmates are on lockdown 23 hours per day, and are given one hour to exercise or make phone calls. Their temperatures are checked periodically, Lopez claimed.
“Basic humanity and compassion are not rights we lost when we become felons,” he added. “We are not animals left to die in our pig pens.”
When asked for comment, Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for Governor Doug Ducey, praised the department’s handling of COVID-19 within state prisons.
“We know that congregate settings, including correctional settings, present heightened challenges. Throughout this crisis, ADCRR has worked closely with public health to mitigate the impact of COVID-19,” Ptak wrote in a statement. “The department has followed and implemented CDC guidance for correctional facilities and, as testing has been made more widely available, continues to expand testing to all inmates, whether they exhibit symptoms or not.”
Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.