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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.

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 updates from Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Wednesday afternoon, the California Judicial Council voted to end an emergency order that allowed people jailed on misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to be released on $0 bail. The order was issued March 20 to address the threat COVID-19 posed to jails, where crowded living conditions make social distancing difficult, if not impossible.  

In a statement, the council said the vote coincided with California’s “phased re-opening,” but urged California counties to keep the $0 bail schedule in place “where necessary to protect the health of the community, the courts, and the incarcerated.”

The Appeal reached out to several county Superior Courts. Two counties—San Francisco and Alameda—plan to keep bail alternatives in place. Other counties said that they will decide by next week whether to revert to their normal bail schedules. 

Jails throughout California are still grappling with new cases of COVID-19, or haven’t conducted widespread testing to know whether people in their custody are infected. Asymptomatic infections continue to be a significant problem for detention facilities, which until recently had been testing and quarantining prisoners based on symptoms.

Advocates for incarcerated people say they asked the Judicial Council to keep $0 bail in place.

“We flooded the Judicial Council with letters, but, per usual, there is no public comment opportunity and no transparency,” said Ivette Alé, from the Los Angeles-based organization Dignity and Power Now.

Alé worries that while some counties will maintain a $0 or reduced-bail program, “more conservative courts in different regions of California may very well choose not to keep the order in place—especially those areas with strong law enforcement influence that want to ratchet up jail numbers.”

On Monday, The Appeal’s Victoria Law wrote about the case of Jalil Muntaqim, a 68-year-old prisoner in New York’s Sullivan Correctional Facility who sought early parole due to health conditions that put him at significant risk of dying from COVID-19.

Born Anthony Bottom—he converted to Islam in prison and changed his name—Muntaqim was arrested in 1971 along with two other member of the Black Panther Party for killing two New York City police officers. Muntaqim was 19 at the time. The three were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

In prison, Muntaqim turned his life around, earning two bachelor’s degrees and creating several educational and therapeutic programs. Yet each time he was up for parole—his first hearing was in 2002—the Patrolmen’s Benevolence Association (PBA) flooded the parole board with letters in opposition. (This information comes from Dan Berger’s Boston Review story about Muntaqim.)

“For decades,” Berger reports, “the PBA effectively controlled the parole board.”

In April, Muntaqim petitioned for early release due to the threat of coronavirus. The New York State Supreme Court granted his request, but Attorney General Letitia James blocked it, saying Muntaqim had failed to show that the prison was “deliberately indifferent to [his] substantial risk of serious harm.”

Muntaqim contracted COVID-19 and ended up in the hospital on May 25. He was returned to the prison on June 4—with damage to multiple organs from the disease—the same day an appeals court sided with James’ order that he remain at Sullivan.  

Muntaqim’s story isn’t unique and it underscores how difficult it’s been for elderly, infirm prisoners to get parole in order to avoid a COVID-19 death sentence. Some examples:

  • In Ohio, a federal appeals court sided with the Bureau of Prisons’ refusal to release 837 elderly and medically vulnerable people
  • USA Today reports on how even prisoners who’ve been granted parole aren’t being released.
  • In Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility, 74-year-old William Hershel Moon, whom the Alabama Department of Corrections described in a press release as an “inmate with a known history of chronic, debilitating disease,” died June 2 after he “repeatedly sent letters over two years to the judge and clerk overseeing his case to raise concerns about his well-being,” the Southern Poverty Law Center reports

* In St. Louis, 15 of 28 children at the Hogan Street Regional Youth Center have active COVID-19, prompting a protest today, demanding the young detainees be released to their parents. 

* YR Media asks whether COVID-19 will result in youth prisons being permanently closed. 

* The Associated Press reports a significant increase in COVID-19 in Maricopa County jails. On June 4, only 30 inmates had tested positive. By June 8, cases shot up to 203. Officials attributed the increase to widespread testing. “The number of cases in Maricopa County’s jails is approaching the total in state prisons, where 237 of Arizona’s 40,000 prisoners have tested positive,” the AP report says. Today, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey held a press conference to discuss the troubling rise of COVID-19 in the state which now has 31,264 known cases

* In a three-part series for Arkansas public radio station KAUR, multimedia journalist Anna Stitt examines the impact coronavirus has had in Arkansas prisons. Part 2 of the series looks at the hard-hit Cummins Unit, where 11 people have died.