Two Tucson Democratic state lawmakers joined a few of their colleagues this week to sharply criticize the Arizona Department of Corrections new media relations policy as COVID-19 spreads across Arizona and within the state’s 16 prison complexes.
In early July, the department restricted reporters’ access to incarcerated people, allowing them to submit questions only through email or physical mail. Prior to this, the media was able to contact incarcerated individuals directly through mail, phone calls and in-person visits.
While the department has prohibited all in-person visitation since March 13 in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the crackdown on reporters’ contact with incarcerated people has been received as restrictive and lacking transparency.
In a letter to ADC Director David Shinn, a handful of Democratic state representatives—including Tucson Reps. Kirsten Engel and Domingo DeGrazia of District 10—wrote that the new media policy is “intentionally and cynically burdensome” to incarcerated people and news reporters who are trying to communicate with each other.
In order to speak with incarcerated individuals telephonically, a reporter must contact the individual’s family and have them add the reporter to the individual’s approved caller list. If the department approves the change, then they can speak to the individual.
This process can take up to 30 days, and incarcerated people have to pay fees in order to speak to reporters on the phone, according to the letter.
In addition, ADC told their employees they are not authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the department, and all inquiries should be directed to ADC’s official communications team. Before the pandemic, employees were allowed to freely talk to the press about their personal opinions about the department.
“None of these changes in the new policy are rationally related to any safety concerns at the prisons,” the letter states. “Instead, they seem solely focused on the Department’s desire to control the flow of information regarding Arizona’s prisons to the public, and members of this Legislature.”
ADC defended its policy saying the restriction on media phone calls was “intended in good faith” to allow correctional officers to focus on the increased volume of attorney phone calls, since in-person visitation is currently suspended.
But the legislators aren’t convinced, and they believe this recent measure is part of a larger pattern of avoiding transparency. They cited previous letters to the department detailing concern over past restrictive media policies and a clear unwillingness to release public information to the press.
“At a minimum, the new policy undermines the public's trust in the Department,” they wrote. “The public has a right to know how its funds are being spent, how incarcerated residents are treated and rehabilitated, and how correctional institutions are combating the spread of COVID-19.”
As of Tuesday, July 28 there have been 819 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated individuals in Arizona’s state prisons and nine COVID-19 related deaths. About 5,200 tests have been administered to the nearly 40,000 prison population and 505 department staff members have self-reported positive COVID-19 diagnoses.
The legislators encouraged ADC to rescind its current media policy and implement policies that increase transparency with the public, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Besides Engel and DeGrazia, the letter’s signatories include Rep. Jennifer Pawlik of District 17, Rep. Athena Salman of District 26 and Rep. Diego Rodriguez of District 27.