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. 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. Read Monday’s update.
After weeks of restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus, cities and states are opening back up, sometimes with ominous results. Today, Texas set a record high for the second straight day for COVID-19 hospitalizations. Infections in correctional facilities are also increasing. According to The New York Times, 29 of the top 40 coronavirus hotspots are prisons or jails.
The data reflect widespread testing but also show that efforts to mitigate infection haven’t worked. The El Dorado News Times reported Sunday that 50 people housed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Ark., tested positive after previously testing negative.
“While much of the country seems to have moved on from the pandemic, more than two million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails are trapped without any way to protect themselves from a virus that they are watching ravage the facilities,” ACLU Legal Director David Cole said in a statement released this afternoon after a federal appeals court sided with the Bureau of Prisons’ refusal to release 837 elderly and medically vulnerable people.
As states reopen, some are ending measures to mitigate infections in prison. As Louisiana enters phase two of reopening, the state’s Department of Public Safety & Corrections is ending a prisoner furlough program intended to create more space for social distancing.
The move comes despite a recent uptick in positive cases, New Orleans’ The Lens reports.
“As of June 1, 941 prisoners in state facilities had been tested for the coronavirus with 540 testing positive. As of [June 3], that number had increased to 559.”
A corrections officer working at the North Central Correctional Complex in Ohio (located less than a mile from Marion Correctional Institution, where more than 80 percent of prisoners and 160 employees tested positive for COVID-19) told The Marion Star that fears over the spread of COVID-19 had turned the facility into “a powder keg.”
The corrections officer said that the prison was “crippled by understaffing” and low morale among staff, who fear for their safety.
Meanwhile, Ohio is on an aggressive reopening schedule with Gov. Mike DeWine announcing that movie theaters, museums, trampoline parks, amusement parks and playgrounds can reopen tomorrow.
Reporters at The Wichita Eagle obtained a document that lists every outbreak in the state as of May 19. The information had been previously withheld from the media by Kansas public health officials. “The list illuminates the real-world consequences of the pandemic by putting names to previously-undisclosed locations,” they write.
The largest source of COVID-19 cases in Kansas is the Lansing Correctional Facility, where through May 19, 846 prisoners tested positive and six died. The facility is also in the top 40 coronavirus hotspots in the U.S., according to New York Times data.
Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation obtained the document through a public records request and shared it with reporters. The Wichita Eagle story also details the struggles reporters faced in attempting to obtain the same information—and the extent to which officials tried to hide it.
On June 1, the Kansas Department of Health reported the Lansing outbreak had been contained. A Kansas Department of Corrections spokesperson told reporters the prison is moving towards resuming in-person visits.
Several news outlets have reported on the reluctance of state corrections departments to release people to parole. On Monday, the Bangor Daily News reported on the Maine Department of Corrections’ narrow criteria for a person to be placed on supervised release: prisoners must be classified as minimum security, have no more than 18 months left on their sentence and have a place to live.
The requirements render nearly everyone in Maine state prisons ineligible, Callie Ferguson reports.
Keighan Robichaud would have qualified for parole if not for testing positive for drugs last fall, which knocked him from low-risk to medium-risk. He participated in two substance abuse programs hoping to regain his low-risk status, but lost it again “after being written up for a non-violent disciplinary infraction,” Ferguson writes.
In a letter to Warden Matthew Magnusson, Robichaud, who has two young children, pleaded for release—“I have a support system, I have a home, I have a positive plan, and I promise you I would not let you regret it”—to no avail.
In 2016, Louisiana’s only women’s prison flooded, forcing officials to transfer more than 900 prisoners into a former men’s prison and a shuttered youth detention facility.
In one dorm, 70 women share three toilets and four sinks. Metal bunkbeds sit and arm’s length apart. A year ago, Frederick Boutté, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women’s warden, complained about the two facilities’ unsuitable conditions.
“These women are literally living on top of one another,” the Advocate’s Lea Skene reports. “In comparison to other state facilities, these women are jammed up. … I don’t think these are optimal conditions.”
At one of the facilities, 87 percent of women tested positive for COVID-19. At the other, 60 percent tested positives.
Skene reports that Louisiana spent millions of dollars trying to renovate the flooded prison before realizing it needed to be razed and rebuilt. “Construction is now expected to start within the next several months,” she writes.
On May 20, The Appeal reported that “as coronavirus sweeps through Louisiana’s prison system, at least 10 women serving long or life-sentences at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) are still awaiting the governor’s signature on their commutation recommendations.”
* Denton Record Chronicle tells the heartbreaking story of Vernon Adderley, who was just eight days from being released from the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, when he died from COVID-19.
* Family members of people in Florida’s prison system shared letters with the Miami-Herald that offer brutal accounts of what it’s like to have COVID-19 behind bars. “Mommy, I’m in so much pain,” one woman wrote to her mother. “I’m still on the floor just crying cuz it hurts.”
* Earlier today, a judge in Brownsville, Texas, agreed to stay the execution of Ruben Gutierrez, which was scheduled for June 16. Gutierrez’s attorneys have argued that DNA testing, which the state has refused to conduct, will prove Gutierrez’s innocence. “It is amazing that the state of Texas has stated that it will test all prison inmates for the COVID-19 virus, yet refuses to agree to simply test the available evidence for DNA to prove whether or not Mr. Gutierrez was responsible for this crime,” his attorney, Shawn Nolan, said in a statement.