Coronavirus in jails and prisons

Despite early warnings, jails and prisons have seen a rapid spread of the virus—a humanitarian disaster that puts all of our communities, and lives, at risk. Every day, The Appeal examines the scale of the crisis, numbers of infected and dead, around the nation.

by Kelly Davis

Monday, June 8

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system — overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks.
“This isn’t an ‘us versus them,’ a ‘red versus blue,’ or a ‘defense versus prosecution’ issue,” Bragg and Godsoe write. “This problem doesn’t stay contained to the prison walls. It affects people with loved ones inside, as well as correctional staff and their families.”
Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus. On a daily basis over the next several months, The Appeal will be examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails, COVID-19’s impact on surrounding communities and how the virus might reshape our lives. Find a daily update here from Friday.

In a commentary published June 5 in Route 50, a website covering state and local governments, Brooklyn Law School professor Alvin Bragg and Cynthia Godsoe, a professor at New York Law School, urge prosecutors to suggest that police issue summonses instead of making arrests and push for release of people in jails and prisons to minimize the threat of COVID-19. Bragg is also a former prosecutor who’s running for Manhattan DA; Godsoe is a former public defender.

“This isn’t an ‘us versus them,’ a ‘red versus blue,’ or a ‘defense versus prosecution’ issue,” Bragg and Godsoe write. “This problem doesn’t stay contained to the prison walls. It affects people with loved ones inside, as well as correctional staff and their families.”

They cite a recent study co-authored by researchers from the ACLU, Washington State University, University of Pennsylvania and University of Tennessee, who found that reducing arrests by 50 percent could save the lives of 12,000 prisoners and 47,000 people in the community. Limiting arrests to only violent crimes, as defined by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, would save 23,000 lives in jails and 76,000 lives in the community.

The ACLU report notes that U.S. epidemiological models projecting deaths from COVID-19 haven’t factored in jails, which “will act as vectors for the COVID-19 pandemic in our communities”

The daily churn of people through jails and staff who come into contact with them could increase COVID-19-related deaths by 100,000, even with “highly effective social distancing” in the community, the ACLU report says. (A recent study of Chicago’s Cook County jail found that nearly 16 percent of all cases in Illinois are likely tied to the jail.)

Prosecutors need to stop treating jails and prisons as separate from the community, Bragg and Godsoe write—they also acknowledge that early releases haven’t led to a spike in crime. Of the 1,500 people freed early from New York’s city jails, only 3 percent have committed new crimes.

“The scientific certainty of more than 100,000 deaths should outweigh fear mongering as these releases will save lives by reducing coronavirus community spread and, in all likelihood, not result in a spike of criminal activity,” they conclude.

On Friday, Hawaii’s state Supreme Court ended a program that granted early release to 650 people being held in prisons and jails on nonviolent charges. In April, the court appointed a special master to help law enforcement officials release as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

The move is being credited for preventing COVID-19 infections in Hawaii’s eight jails. Three of the state’s four prosecutors opposed the move, including Honolulu prosecuting attorney Dwight Nadamoto, who told KITV news that 79 of the 650 people released had been re-arrested.

Kaua’i County Prosecuting Attorney Justin Koller told The Appeal that releases in Kaua’i “went very smoothly.”

“The problems we had were mostly related to issues like missing calls with probation officers or curfew violations,” he said. “Some prosecutors, unfortunately, tried to politicize the situation.”

On June 3, the Twitter account @RailroadUnderg1—which claims to be run by an “Incarcerated human being reporting from inside of a prison with a contraband cellphone”—reported that among the people transferred from the California Institute for Men (CIM), a state prison in Chino, Calif., to San Quentin Prison on May 30, two told staff they had COVID-19.

The Appeal sent the tweet to a CDCR spokesperson who said the men—part of roughly 700 removed from CIM due to overcrowding and health issues—were tested prior to the transfer and that the receiving institutions were taking “all precautionary measures necessary” to make sure COVID didn’t enter the prisons.

At that point, San Quentin had no positive cases, according to CDCR’s patient tracker. On June 1, the prison had one active case. On June 2, eight active cases. On June 4, 15 active cases.

Today, @RailroadUnderg1 tweeted a link to a blog post that said 20 people transferred from CIM “have now tested positive according to the incarcerated workers who were given overtime last night, disinfecting cells in South Block.”

Asked today about the new cases, CDCR spokesperson Dina Simas said four of the 121 men transferred to San Quentin tested positive for COVID-19 after arrival. She said none of the men were exposed to the general population. All transfers out of CIM have been suspended while CDCR reviews the situation.

Simas told The Appeal that all prisoners sent to San Quentin had five reusable cloth barrier masks, which they were required to wear at all times. Once they arrived at San Quentin, they were placed on a 14-day quarantine and are undergoing additional testing.

Simas said the other positive tests were the result of expanded testing. So far, San Quentin has tested 481 people at “twice the state and national testing rate.” And, unlike in many detention facilities, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is available in housing units, dining halls, work change areas, and other areas where sinks and soap are not immediately available, Simas said.

* The team behind American Public Media’s award-winning podcast, In the Dark, have produced a new series called “Coronavirus in the Delta,” which looks at the impact of COVID-19 on the Mississippi Delta region. The series’ most recent episode, “Geno,” tells the story of Eugene “Geno” McShane, who was arrested in mid-March for allegedly stealing steaks from a Walmart Supercenter in Indianola. “As the coronavirus swept into the Mississippi Delta, a judge in the small city of Indianola decided to release every inmate she had in jail. That is, every inmate except one,” says the episode’s summary. Listen to find out what happened to McShane.

* The number of COVID-19 cases at California’s Avenal State Prison continues to grow. Last week, there were 584 active cases. This week it’s up to 670. Over the weekend, protestors gathered outside the Central California prison, holding signs reading “Care not cages” and “Dorms are the incarceration virus,” referring to the prison’s communal living units, which have been blamed for the virus’ spread.

* The Miami Herald reports that almost 500 people in Miami-Dade County jails—41 percent of 1,166 tested—have COVID-19. The rate of infection in the jails is nearly four times that of the county’s, where 11 percent of people tested are infected. Ten prisoners are hospitalized and one has died.

* The Texas Tribune has a new story today looking at COVID-19 in Huntsville’s Wynne Unit, where there have been 10 COVID-related deaths, including one correctional officer. Reporter Jolie McCullough quotes from letters prisoners have sent to the news outlet. They describe people who are obviously ill who aren’t being quarantined or tested; prisoners without adequate cleaning and sanitation materials; and prisoners who choose not to report symptoms because being placed in medical quarantine is similar to being placed in solitary confinement.

This article published by The Appeal on June 8, 2020, here…

The Appeal is a non-profit media organization that produces original journalism about criminal justice, focusing on the drivers of mass incarceration at the state and local level.

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