Mother worried for daughter she says tested positive for COVID-19 in prison

By Lauren Castle

While many families have been able to quarantine together, or at least see loved ones virtually, Pamela Mistrioty has spent the past month of COVID-19 worried about her daughter’s safety.

Mistrioty’s 22-year-old daughter, her only child, is in prison for a drug violation and shoplifting. And she recently tested positive for COVID-19, her mom said.

Mistrioty has the state Perryville prison phone number her daughter calls her from labeled in her phone as “baby girl.”

She wants answers. She wants to feel like there are people taking the best possible care of her daughter in the midst of this pandemic.

“I’m not there to hug her, hold her hand or give her support,” she said.

Mistrioty said her daughter feels alone. She’s been in quarantine for nearly three weeks, suffering from chills, body aches and wheezing.

Mistrioty has frantically made numerous phone calls to Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry officials and lawyers asking for help. In one day, she said, she called prison staff members four times to find out how they are taking care of her daughter.

“I love her to death,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot with this child in the last year.”

The Department of Corrections reported on Thursday that Perryville has had only one positive COVID-19 case.

The state is not releasing the names of inmates who have tested positive. The Arizona Republic is not identifying the woman but did independently confirm her incarceration.

According to ABC 15, a Perryville officer who worked in the kitchen had tested positive. The Department of Corrections has declined to provide the locations of the officers.

The department also did not respond to The Republic’s several requests for confirmation of reports of officers testing positive for the coronavirus. Instead, it issued a news release detailing how it planned to provide officers masks.

Mistrioty said her daughter started to experience symptoms in April after she and other inmates were told to deep clean the kitchen. She had chills, body aches, wheezing, a tight chest and a loss of taste.

Her daughter felt too sick to attend her GED classes and was sent back to her cell. On April 24, a corrections officer went to her daughter’s cell to check on her after she missed a roll call.

The officer sent her to medical staff. They tested her for the coronavirus, and put her in quarantine.

While she was in quarantine, Mistrioty said, her daughter asked a nurse after a week about her results. The nurse told her daughter that she was positive.

Mistrioty said she’s especially concerned because her daughter has asthma and has to use an inhaler and also has a history of swollen lymph nodes. She said her daughter is mostly being treated by nursing staff.

According to Mistrioty, her daughter was recently tested a second time, and the results again came back positive. Her daughter is still feeling tightness in her chest.

While in quarantine, Mistrioty said, her daughter has had to clean her own cell. Recently, her mom said, she only had shampoo and water to clean it with.

“She told me yesterday that she cried pretty hard last night,” Mistrioty said. “I think nobody cares about the inmates’ health.”

The state’s prisons are involved in a longstanding legal battle with inmates who claim health care has been inadequate for years.

Lawyers at the Arizona Center for Disability Law, American Civil Liberties Union, the Prison Law Office and other firms sued the state prisons in 2012. A settlement was reached in 2014, but the state has failed to meet the terms of the settlement and the legal battle has continued.

After attorneys accused the state and its health care provider, Centruion, of not being prepared to prevent and treat the coronavirus, the department released information on how it claims it is helping inmates.

The department has suspended off-site work crews, except for one at Hickman’s Family Farm. It waived the $4 health care fee and is providing inmates free soap.

On top of worrying about her health, Mistrioty said her daughter is also worried about missing her GED classes. She doesn’t want to be forced to start her classes over again because of her absence.

“Her GED is very important to her,” Mistrioty said.

She said her daughter fears losing her spot in class while she is recovering. The classes are highly sought after in prison and a spot can be hard to come by.

On Tuesday, the department posted a photo on Twitter celebrating inmates at the Winslow prison who received their GEDs this year.

KJZZ reported classes were still being held in person, and sometimes in crowded classrooms, even while all other K-12 and university classes in the state were moved online to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Prison teachers and inmate families told KJZZ the decision to continue in-person classes was endangering lives. In a statement to KJZZ, the department said the classes were still in person because they are considered an essential service.

Visitations to all of the Arizona prisons was suspended in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There has been concern about new inmates bringing in the virus, as well as prison staff bringing it in and spreading it to inmates.

In March, the department suspended new prison admissions from jails for 21 days. After the suspension, it planned to allow new inmates in cycles.

According to the state, there have been 62 confirmed cases of state prison staff members with COVID-19.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said the state is expanding its testing for inmates and correctional officers.

The state claims inmates who are experiencing symptoms are being tested. As of Wednesday, 519 inmates in Arizona prison facilities and private facilities that contract with the department have been tested.

According to Christ, the department is planning to provide antibody testing to all correctional officers. She stated the department is working with the University of Arizona to test officers.

However, advocates and lawyers for the inmates are concerned that Christ did not say when and how many more inmates will be tested.

Prison Law Office Attorney Corene Kendrick pointed out how many tests the Department of Corrections has reported. On Wednesday, the department reported 519 inmates were tested and 121 cases were positive. There are 42 cases pending. Kendrick said the prison population in Arizona is 41,299.

“They reported on Monday that there were 60 positive cases, so the number of confirmed cases doubled in two days with additional testing,” Kendrick said in a statement. “This rate indicates that the virus is probably much more widespread than the numbers show.”

The state has reported one confirmed inmate death from COVID-19, and four others that are possibly connected to the virus.

“This is the same number of deaths as in the California prison system, which has three times the number of people behind bars as Arizona,” Kendrick said in a statement.

The American Friends Services Committee-Arizona said Christ’s statements raise more questions than answers. It still wants to know whether more data will be made available to the public and what will be done to protect inmates.

Caroline Isaacs, director of the organization, told The Republic that it doesn’t believe the Department of Corrections is currently testing every guard and inmate who is experiencing symptoms.

It is important for the public to know the locations where the guards who tested positive worked, Isaacs said. She said this would help understand the locations of outbreaks and help inform families of inmates.

“We have the obligation to tell them that,” she told The Republic.

Christ has said epidemiologists will be going into the prisons to make sure CDC guidelines are being followed.

Isaacs said this announcement highlights the importance of advocacy.

A group of 11 organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Prison Law Office, American Friends Services Committee and the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice sent a letter to Christ in April asking her to intervene to make sure staff and people who are incarcerated are protected from the illness.

Isaacs said it shows that the Department of Corrections is not meeting the CDC guidelines.

Lawyers representing Arizona inmates said the COVID-19 plan created by the Department of Corrections and its health care contractor Centurion has “numerous differences” from what the CDC advises.