Lillian Coppess: Why Gov. Ducey should release ill or elderly prisoners for our and their safety
top story

Lillian Coppess: Why Gov. Ducey should release ill or elderly prisoners for our and their safety

There is nothing I can do to protect my husband from the spread of the coronavirus. He’s surrounded by hundreds of other people and cannot separate himself from them, or even keep a distance of 6 feet between himself and others. At the place where he resides, people have no access to hand sanitizer and are given only small hotel-size bars of soap to wash their hands.

My husband has serious liver damage and COPD and is already a patient in a medical wing where care is substandard, doctors and nurses are scarcely seen and facilities lack ventilators and other medical equipment to provide critical care.

My husband, Wellington, is a prisoner in the Tucson prison complex of the Arizona Department of Corrections. I am terrified that I will not see him alive again. Prisons are full of people who were not given death sentences, but now thousands of them fear dying behind bars.

Wellington is not alone in his fear of contracting coronavirus and becoming seriously ill or dying. Twelve percent of the 41,000 people in Arizona prisons are age 55 or older. Many prisoners have serious medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, HIV and hepatitis.

According to the CDC, elderly people and people with these kinds of medical conditions are most likely to suffer serious complications or death if they get COVID-19. Medical care in Arizona prisons is already so subpar that the state has been embroiled in a yearslong lawsuit and paid millions in fines.

People may be tempted to say, “Who cares? There are people out here who didn’t break the law and are getting sick.” But the coronavirus catastrophe looming in Arizona’s prisons and jails will impact everyone.

Thousands of correctional officers coming to work will carry the coronavirus inside, infecting prisoners who will infect their cellmates. Infected corrections officers will carry COVID-19 home to their families and neighbors. Medical systems in and outside of prison could be strained to the breaking point.

The solution is straightforward: Gov. Doug Ducey must release elderly and seriously ill prisoners immediately using his clemency power and save thousands of lives. Arizona law gives the governor power to grant reprieves or medical clemency, upon a recommendation from the Board of Executive Clemency.

Reprieves hit pause on a punishment, releasing a person from prison until a future point in time — in this case, when the spread of the coronavirus abates. Medical clemency releases people who are in imminent danger of death because of a medical condition.

Gov. Ducey should work with the Department of Corrections and Board of Executive Clemency to identify and grant reprieves or medical clemency to all Arizona prisoners over age 60 or with an autoimmune disorder or serious medical condition that makes them at greater risk of death from COVID-19.

Action is needed today. Prison officials in Arizona say they are taking steps to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but already stories are emerging of critical failures to provide adequate soap and cleaning supplies, masks, testing or screening of staff for illness. It is just a matter of time before an outbreak begins.

All visits to prisons have been suspended, so my husband and I rely on phone calls and snail mail to stay in touch. Men at the prison stand in long lines waiting to use the few phones available to let their loved ones know they are still well — for now.

The waiting, the uncertainty, the helplessness and the fear of what is coming are paralyzing. Watching officials fail to release those most in danger as the crisis mounts is enraging.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary leadership. Gov. Ducey, our families are counting on you.

Lillian Coppess is the president of the START Project, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes families of incarcerated people to advocate sentencing and prison reform. She lives in Tucson and can be reached at

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News