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 Wednesday and Thursday.
On March 27, California Gov. Gavin Newsom granted clemency to dozens of prisoners, but Patricia Wright wasn’t among them. The 68-year-old, who’s serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, has been incarcerated in the California Institution for Women (CIW) for more than two decades.
Last month, The Appeal’s Mara Kardas-Nelson wrote about Wright, who’s undergoing chemotherapy for Stage 3 ovarian cancer. Wright suffers from several health conditions and is also legally blind.
Wright’s younger sister, Chantel Bonet, has been pleading with Gov. Gavin Newsom—and his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown—to release her. On June 11, attorney Jason K. Smith sent Newsom a letter on Bonet’s behalf, requesting that he reconsider Wright’s case. CIW currently has 100 prisoners with active COVID-19. One woman imprisoned there has died.
On April 17—in response to a letter from one of Wright’s doctors, expressing concern that Wright is at high risk of contracting, and dying from, COVID-19, a prison official said she was ineligible for release because she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). But, as Smith notes in his June 11 letter, Newsom’s March 27 pardons and commutations included seven people sentenced to LWOP.
“I can imagine that Patricia Wright not being on this list was an oversight during this unprecedented time,” Smith writes.
In 1998, Wright was convicted of murdering her husband Jerome Scott. Scott was killed in 1981, but the case went cold until the Los Angeles Police Department decided to give it another look 14 year later. Wright’s brother and a neighbor told detectives that Wright confessed to the murder. Despite no eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking her to the crime, Wright was convicted and sentenced to life. Her brother and the neighbor later recanted, saying they’d been coerced by detectives.
Complicating Wright’s case is the fact she has two other felonies on her record. In 1989, when she was homeless and caring for her five children, Wright stole bath towels from a model home. Her 7-year-old son took a couple of toys. Wright was arrested and pleaded guilty to two felony counts of second-degree burglary. She served no jail time.
Today, under California’s Prop. 47 which was passed by voters in 2014, the burglary charges would be considered misdemeanors.
A petition asking Newsom to release Wright currently has more than 110,000 signatures.
If released, Smith says in his letter, Wright will live with her sister in Riverside.
“This will significantly increase Patricia’s chances of escaping death by the coronavirus,” Smith writes. “One of the few deaths I can think that would be worse than cancer is to spend my last moments suffocating on a ventilator.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is reporting 204 active cases of COVID-19 in the Duncan Unit, a geriatic prison facility adjacent to the Diboll Correctional Facility in tiny Diboll, (population 5,247).
According to TDCJ’s coronavirus tracker, 19 Duncan Unit employees have fallen ill and another 150 prisoners are on medical restriction, meaning they’re being quarantined for possible exposure to the virus. The tracker shows that none of the Duncan prisoners diagnosed with COVID have recovered. According to the Texas Tribune, there are 418 prisoners at Duncan.
The Lufkin Daily News reports that more than a dozen elderly prisoners have been hospitalized.
According to the TDCJ tracker, there are 3,520 active cases of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons. Forty-nine prisoners have died and 32 more deaths are under investigation. This week, TDCJ reported the death of 54-year-old Correctional Officer Thomas Ogungbire. Assigned to Hutchins State Jail in Dallas, Ogungbire tested positive for COVID-19 on April 20 and was hospitalized. He seemed to be doing better, TDCJ reports, and had been weaned off oxygen, “but he took an unexpected turn for the worse.”
The TDCJ’s struggles with coronavirus come as the state is experiencing a surge in infections: this afternoon, Houston hit a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations.
* Today, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported the 15th death of an incarcerated person from COVID-19. The exact cause of death is pending, but he was diagnosed with the virus. It’s the first COVID-19 death reported by Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and it adds to13 deaths at the California Institution for Men and one death at the California Institution for Women. CDCR is reporting 2,430 active cases of COVID-19.
* On Wednesday, Colorado Public Radio’s Sam Brasch wrote about a vigil held outside the Sterling Correctional Facility in the northeast part of the state. With roughly 2,200 prisoners, Sterling Correctional is Colorado’s largest jail; it has seen the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, with at least 562 prisoners and 32 staff testing positive for the virus. Three prisoners have died. “About a dozen women waved signs and electric candles toward the cell blocks in the distance,” Brasch wrote of the vigil. “Kids blinked lanterns off and on. And after a few minutes, the windows of the prison started flickering, too.”
* Craig DeRoche, former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives and current senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, wrote an op-ed this week for the Detroit Free Press calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to commute the sentences of low-risk prisoners scheduled to be released within a year. DeRoche notes that Michigan is one of the states with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated people. On May 21, The Appeal’s Aaron Miguel Cantú wrote about the plight of people held in Michigan’s COVID-19-wracked prisons as they await a review of their cases by the Wayne County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Jason K. Smith as Patricia Wright’s attorney. That is incorrect. Also, Mara Kardas-Nelson was misidentified as Mara Kardas-Wilson.