Reports listing the deaths this month of inmates in the custody of Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) show little difference to the number of inmates who died in April 2019, Arizona Daily Independent has found.
Earlier this month, Joseph M. Assyd passed away at a hospital in Pima County, becoming the first state prisoner whose death involved the presence of COVID-19. He is one of 13 inmates -ranging in age from 50 to 79- whose deaths have been announced on the ADC website through April 27.
In comparison, death notices issued by ADC in April 2019 show 12 inmates died that month, ranging from the age of 29 to 83.
Assyd, 64, was assigned to the state prison in Florence since 1996 for a murder and kidnapping that occurred in Maricopa County. He had been hospitalized for two weeks before his April 12 death, according to ADC.
A second ADC inmate to die this month after testing positive for COVID-19 also had a serious preexisting condition. He was a 79-year-old man known as Sittingdown, who died April 24 after being admitted to a non-ADC medical facility.
Sittingdown, who apparently had no first name but used the alias Robert Proell, was already suffering from lung cancer when he contracted the coronavirus.
The two deaths prompted some prisoner-rights advocates to question health protocols being utilized by ADC in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional conspiracy theories were put forth when it was revealed the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office did not perform an autopsy or external examination of Assyd’s body.
However, Dr. Gregory Hess, the county’s chief medical examiner, said there was “no cover-ups, no conspiracies” related to how his staff approached Assyd’s death.
“Mr. Assyd had a number of well documented underlying natural medical comorbidities and unfortunately contracted COVID somewhere along the way,” Hess explained, adding that an analysis of the records of Assyd’s recent “extended hospitalization” made a physical examination unnecessary.
Comorbidity is the presence of two chronic diseases or conditions in a patient. The diseases can be unrelated or interrelated.
In Arizona, a medical examiner must be notified of the death of a person in custody of a state agency. Some other circumstances requiring mandatory reporting include any death from violence, any unexpected or unexplained death of a child, and deaths occurring after a surgical or anesthetic procedure.
In 2018, Hess’s office received more than 3,200 reports of death, including 506 from outside Pima County. Of those, the OME took jurisdiction of 1,837 bodies.
From there, 444 external examinations, 154 anthropologic examinations, and 1,260 autopsies were conducted. There were also 335 “death certificate” reviews such as was done in Assyd’s death.
Hess explained that having a medical examiner complete a death certification based on a review of medical records without a physical examination is common. It can also include review of law enforcement reports and “any other information that may be necessary to determine the cause and manner of death without physical examination.”
The other ADC inmates who died this month are Jerry W. Allgood, 75; Luis A. Chavez, 75; Charles Coffelt, 79; Stephen W. Cofield, 57; John A. Estrada, 50; James L. Harvey, 75; Jesus O. Medina, 64; Cyrus R. Pool, 63; Richard R. Sheff, 65; James R. Simpson, 70; and William D. Stragey, 59.