When the COVID-19 outbreak emerged in the United States, concerned voices from those directly impacted by the criminal justice system harmoniously warned against what anything less than a swift, coordinated effort would produce: the avoidable death and suffering of vulnerable citizens.
Arizona is experiencing exactly that. According to data obtained from the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (“ADCRR”) COVID-19 Dashboard, to date there have been 1458 confirmed cases resulting in 21 confirmed or suspected deaths. Self-reported positive results from staff members also continue to climb, reaching 607.
Since the inception of the pandemic, the responses from Governor Doug Ducey, the Arizona Department of Health Services (“ADHS”) and the ADCRR have been underwhelming and opaque. Now, months later as the number of positive cases and preventable deaths continue to spike, the ADCRR and ADHS, with their budgets of $1,286,397,200 and $485,236,800, respectively, have asked for and received additional funds from Arizona taxpayers.
Recently, the ADHS submitted an emergency request to the Arizona Department of Administration’s State Procurement Office seeking approximately $4.2 million to fund COVID testing and physician follow-ups for up to 65,000 tests in the ADCRR. Specifically, the request states the following regarding materials and services and provides this justification:
The state legislature appropriated the funds and some testing has been completed. On August 4th, ADCRR issued a press release stating that 517 of the 1066 individuals housed at ASPC-Tucson Whetstone Unit tested positive for COVID-19, a staggering 48% of that unit’s population.
This funding, testing and processing is being completed during one of the most nontransparent periods in ADCRR history. Newly appointed Director David Shinn is making few public appearances, releasing little information, not answering questions, and has issued unconstitutionally restrictive policies threatening staff for speaking to the press and limiting journalist’s access to the incarcerated men and women in the ADCRR. These policy changes coupled with the mismanagement of the response to the COVID pandemic raise serious concerns about the management of the ADCRR and the care of the people in the custody of the state.
The absence of information received by the public promotes fear and uncertainty in these already challenging times. It is the responsibility of the ADCRR to provide to those in their care, their employees, and to Arizona taxpayers a concrete plan for executing testing and treatment related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cycle of denying a problem, allowing unresolved issues to exacerbate, delaying until there are catastrophic consequences from inaction, seeking additional funding from the Arizona Legislature on top of the appropriated $1.2 billion budget to fix avoidable problems, all while having no transparency, accountability, or oversight of the allocation and use of those funds has been the playbook for the ADCRR for many years. This has had an enormously detrimental effect on our State budget and all the services and structures that Arizona taxpayers fund.
We, the citizens of Arizona, must no longer stand idle as administration after administration invokes fear and cites public safety concerns to a credulous legislature fearful of being labeled soft on crime. We must no longer allow deceptive and disingenuous narratives to create false binary choices for the taxpayers of this state.
It is long past due that we create a robust and independent system of checks and balances on the operations of this bloated and unaccountable agency. We must take ownership to ensure funding is correctly appropriated; that evidence-based, recidivism-reducing correctional practices are implemented; and we must hold our elected and appointed leaders to account for the safe and orderly operation of our prison system. We must set aside our apathy and make certain that our tax dollars actually fund an agency that lives up to the promise of corrections, rehabilitation, and reentry principles.
For the safety of the men and women incarcerated in the ADCRR, the employees, and our communities, we must demand full transparency and accountability for the appropriated COVID-19 testing and the operations of ADCRR in total. Moreover, it is time we pass legislation creating the Citizens Oversight and Advisory Board with Ombuds as was proposed in House Bill 2754 during the 2020 legislative session in the House Judiciary Committee to create a permanent structure of transparency and accountability in the ADCRR.
Arizona can wait no longer for the promise of a better tomorrow from an administrative agency that lost its way decades ago.