Sheriff Paul Penzone has suspended all “volunteer” access into all Maricopa County jails due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Volunteers to the jail and tours with community members are cancelled until further notice, though social visits by video from family and friends will continue to be permitted inside the jail, according to Norma Gutierrez-Deorta. The order will not affect legal obligations or other court-ordered interactions.
At this time, there are currently no cases of COVID-19 among people incarcerated in Maricopa County jails, according to Penzone.
“ I make this decision, however, as a precautionary measure to protect our officers, staff, and the incarcerated population to mitigate the potential spread of this disease,” Penzone said in a press release announcing the decision this morning.
Penzone noted in the release that family and friends will also continue to be able to communicate with incarcerated loved ones through the jail system’s new tablet technology, which allows detainees to communicate through video visitation, messaging and photo sharing, and email.
Nationally, advocates have begun to call for a release for people held within jails who are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of a crime, due to concerns about the crowded conditions spreading the virus to people with limited control over their movement.
Penzone’s decision follows a letter sent by the Prison Law Office earlier this weekend to the Arizona Department of Corrections, expressing concern over the state’s lack of a plan to protect the many elderly and ill patients within its care during the pandemic. It also comes after the federal government moved to suspend all social visits to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers throughout the county, including Arizona, on Friday.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maricopa County jails are more frequently sanitizing commonly touched surfaces in facilities and educating staff and inmates about the importance of washing their hands, the sheriff said.
He’s also in contact with the “private industry” to determine if additional “safety equipment and products” are available to further ensure detainee health. The Office declined to comment further about the companies they’re speaking to or the types of equipment they’re considering.
Penzone has said the sheriff’s office will continue to monitor and reevaluate “further restrictions” for inmate visitations by family and friends and programs daily, as they receive new information from federal and state health partners.