/ Modified aug 19, 2020 2:16 p.m.

'We are not animals': Letter details how Tucson prison became COVID-19 hot spot

In a 22-page letter, a military veteran incarcerated at ASPC-Tucson describes a chaotic pandemic behind bars.

360 ep summary barb wire File image of razor wire lining a fence at a state prison in Arizona.
AZPM Staff

One unit at a state prison in Tucson is in the middle of the worst COVID-19 outbreak of prisons statewide. A letter shared with AZPM from the unit details how facility practices may have paved the way for cases to skyrocket, and numbers might be even higher than reported.

Manuel Lopez II is serving a four-and-a-half year sentence for an aggravated DUI at the Whetstone unit of Arizona State Prison Complex-Tucson (ASPC-Tucson), a unit that houses around 1,000 incarcerated people. Lopez is one of more than 500 within that unit to test positive for the coronavirus, according to data released by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) on Aug. 4.

More than 42,000 people are incarcerated across Arizona, one of the largest prison populations nationwide. Advocates have long warned about the threat of contagion in state prisons. In a 22-page handwritten letter dated Aug. 8, Lopez describes how living arrangements, staff behavior and testing practices made an outbreak all but inevitable.

"The governor, ADCRR, and the media has reported that measures are being instituted in the unit to control the outbreak and the population is largely a-symptomatic," Lopez wrote in the letter. "The reality of the situation here couldn't be farther from that narrative."

Lopez's letter provides a detailed timeline of events within the unit starting in late March, when three staff members within the unit tested positive for COVID-19. Though ADCRR said it was conducting temperature checks and basic screenings for staff members, a mask mandate for staff across the Arizona prison system wasn't implemented until almost three months later, on June 18.

Lopez said more staff and inmates at Whetstone became sick within that time frame. But inmates were not allowed to wear masks and were routinely not tested, even after coming in contact with staff members who'd tested positive and, in some cases, complained of symptoms. Meanwhile, quarantines implemented to stave off contagion were unpredictable.

"The 14-day quarantine that was implemented on April 6th was suddenly ended and inmates were allowed to resume regular activities on the yard to include classes, programs, work assignments, dining in the chow hall and using community phones and equipment," Lopez's letter said in an entry labeled April 10.

By July, Lopez, who is housed with U.S. Marine Corps and other military veterans like himself, said more and more people in his dorm started experiencing symptoms like coughing, headaches and difficulty breathing. ADCRR issued masks to all inmates in the beginning of July and suspended most nonessential work duties. But with each dorm housing 125 people — some in bunk beds, others in cubicles — Lopez said living arrangements alone created an environment ripe for contagion.

"In the bunk beds two inmates share a 4ft by 8ft area spaced approximately six feet apart from the next, the same area is provided in the cubicles, but only one inmate is housed there," he wrote. "Social distancing is literally impossible."

Lopez said inmates who tested positive for the virus were moved into one unit to cohort together, a practice common in congregate settings like prisons and detention centers. But he said staff members moved between units indiscriminately. He said similar issues continued when mass testing began later in July. He was one of 220 Whetstone inmates selected to be tested.

"The most notable thing we all noticed is both staff members wore the same gloves while taking the swabs," he wrote. "At no time did they change gloves or PPE in between samples."

Lopez's results came back a few days later. He was positive for COVID-19.

His results were part of the 517 positive cases in Whetstone reported by ADCRR on Aug. 4. Lopez said based off a tally he and other inmates kept after being debriefed by staff, they believe the number is at least 620.

"The number reported and the claims that almost all cases are a-symptomatic is 100% false," he wrote. "Everyone is or has experienced symptoms of a wide variety."

Contagion continues at Whetstone. An Aug. 11 update in Lopez's letter said in the wake of so many people testing positive, inmates are longer being considered for early release because transitional housing facilities don't want to risk an outbreak. Meanwhile, staff members are still not being tested routinely. Lopez said inmates worry they will continue to be exposed to the virus by staff who could be asymptomatic.

"The residents of Whetstone will never be safe from exposure to the virus if testing of staff remains optional," Lopez wrote. "Proper health care and medical treatment was not waived when we were found guilty of our crime."

Though video visits have been canceled for now, Lopez's mother, Cris Valadez, speaks to her son on the phone almost every day. She said writing a letter was the only way her son could detail the timeline of the events. Correctional officers can mute calls if conversations are deemed inappropriate. Valadez said that's happened during calls with her son about COVID-19 conditions. She urged people to push for answers.

They're still fathers, brothers and uncles and everything else, and they're doing their time," she said. "I mean, these guys, especially in the veteran unit especially, these guys were in the military for us, they were there to protect us."

Valadez said her son was a popular tattoo artist in Phoenix before being incarcerated over two years ago. She's been keeping up his art pages online ever since. So far, she said he hasn't experienced severe COVID-19 symptoms, but she worries all the time. Others have not been as lucky.

At least five inmates have died from COVID-19 at ASPC-Tucson, according to ADCRR data. Four more deaths are inconclusive. Statewide, more than 1,600 incarcerated people have tested positive for the virus, 11 of whom died.

In his letter, Lopez said those numbers should be remembered.

"We are not animals left to die in our pig pens," he wrote. "Does making a mistake and getting a DUI forfeit my worth, my life? Does it negate my service to my country? Does it justify the deaths of inmates across the state? Why isn't anyone looking into how the spread got so bad here in the first place? I can assure you it's not just bad luck."

In an email, a spokesperson from the Arizona Department of Corrections said staff and correctional officers have been required to wear masks inside facilities since June 15. Inmates were issued cloth masks on July 2. The spokesperson said staff members are encouraged, but not required, to get tested. Those who test positive are taken off work until they test negative or the department receives a release from a primary care provider. According to department data, 654 correctional staff members have tested positive across Arizona.

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