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DIGGING DEEPER: COVID-19 death toll rises inside Arizona prisons

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Since the start of the pandemic, 25 state prison inmates have died of COVID-19.

Many of those deaths have been at the Arizona State Prison complex in Tucson.

"It's very hard, because we were scared. We were praying that he wouldn't get the virus," said Lillian Coppess, whose husband, Wellington, is incarcerated at the Arizona State Prison on South Wilmot Road.

For Coppess, who heads up the Arizona S.T.A.R.T Project, each day is filled with uncertainty about what the future may hold for her husband.

There have been more than 1,300 COVID-19 cases at the Wilmot facility since the start of the pandemic, and ten inmates there have died.

"Since the beginning, he told me like at the beginning of April, I remember him telling me, 'I am going to get it because it's impossible to social-distance in prison. It is just impossible,'" Coppess told the Digging Deeper team.

COVID-19 has hit Arizona prisons hard. At the Yuma prison, where so far more than 800 inmates have tested positive, it was recently learned that the warden himself was infected, and later died from the illness. This, as state corrections leaders work to try and get a handle on the pandemic.

"I think it's fair to say that their response is below the expected standard of any institution that's responsible for people that can't really provide for themselves," said Veronica Torres, part of the Puente AZ Human Rights Movement.

Torres spent 25 years - a life sentence - in prison for murder, and knows first-hand what life is like on the inside.

Now, with the pandemic, Torres tells News 4 Tucson a bad situation for inmates has only gotten worse.

"When prisoners try to grieve the medical process or the COVID conditions in the facility, the grievances would disappear, and it's impossible for anyone on the inside, you know, to be heard," Torres told News 4 Tucson.  

Making things even more difficult, as is the case with hospitals and nursing homes, families have not been able to personally visit their loved ones who are inmates. It's unclear when that will change, though Torres says she has been told that it may remain that way for up to one year.

"It's not good. It hurts. And I think that's with anybody when you miss your family, but in there it's a little bit different, especially now with COVID," Torres told News 4 Tucson.

The Digging Deeper team wanted to know why there were so many deaths at the Wilmot prison - even more than at other facilities with a greater number of inmates.

In an email, and Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry spokesperson told us:

"ASPC-Tucson has some units that are medical facilities that house inmates with more significant medical issues and needs. All inmate deaths are investigated in consultation with the county medical examiner's office.      Director Shinn and ADCRR have followed all CDC and ADHS guidelines throughout the pandemic, and continue to do so."   

Meanwhile, families like Lillian's are not convinced they're getting the whole story when it comes to how many people have been infected inside our state's prisons.

"We see and we feel that the numbers are off. They are not reflecting the reality that our loved ones on the inside are having." Coppess told News 4 Tucson.

State prisons are not the only ones dealing with the pandemic. At the federal prison, also on South Wilmot Road, five inmates have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of this month.

Paul Birmingham

Paul Birmingham is an Investigative Producer for KVOA News 4 Tucson. He is a three time Edward R. Murrow award winner, native Tucsonan, and a proud Arizona Wildcat.

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