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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.

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 an update from Friday.


When factories closed and farms shut down in the 1980s, rural areas became ideal locations for large prisons: they were at safe distance from urban areas and served as a source of employment for communities facing narrowing job prospects. But COVID-19 has underscored the danger of putting thousands of people in places with few—or no—medical resources. Last week, Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Eastern Washington State reported that 71 of its prisoners had fallen ill with COVID-19—a number that crept up to 79 today. Thirty-four employees have also been infected. Another 1,815 people incarcerated there have been placed into quarantine, meaning they were exposed to an infected person but aren’t showing symptoms. The prison’s nearest hospital is an hour away and aside from Coyote Ridge’s own medical staff, community resources consist only of a team of volunteer EMS professionals. A press release from the Washington State Department of Corrections says it’s deployed “additional custody and health services staff to assist CRCC staff in caring for those incarcerated at the facility.”

On April 21, The Appeal published a commentary from Jonathan Ben-Menachem on the precarity of small prison towns in the COVID-19 era. The virus “might complicate” the theory that prison jobs are a sound replacement for the decline in employment related to manufacturing, Ben-Menachem wrote, “because rural areas often lack health infrastructure, which is associated with higher mortality rates.” 


On June 12, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown asked the state’s Department of Corrections to conduct a “a case-by-case analysis” of incarcerated people to determine who could be released to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Brown’s criteria was narrow: the list could include only people at risk of dying from COVID-19 who were not convicted of a crime against another person, had no disciplinary write-ups for a year, had served at least half of their sentences and had a place to go upon release. The Oregonian reports that only 100 people—out of a prison population of 14,500—met that criteria.

Oregon has 14 prisons, with cases of COVID-19—prisoners, staff or both—reported at five. Another eight facilities report having prisoners in medical isolation or quarantine. 

Testing in Oregon jails has been minimal, according to the DOC’s coronavirus tracker. Nearly two-thirds of those tests were conducted at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, where 36 staff members and 139 incarcerated people have been infected. Another 2,020 are in quarantine.

“Many inmates have balked at testing out of fear they will be transferred to an even more restrictive setting,” The Oregonian reports, “so the number of cases may under represent the actual state of the disease in the prison.” 

Last week, Brown put her state’s reopening on hold for a week, citing an increase in COVID-19 cases throughout Oregon. 


* Until June 5, Maricopa County’s five jails reported only 30 cases of COVID-19 among the roughly 4,400 people in custody. By June 8, the number of cases shot up to 203, which officials attributed to an increase in testing. On Friday, that number climbed to 313, according to the Associated Press. With that increase, the number of coronavirus cases in Maricopa County jails have surpassed the number of cases in all of the state’s prisons, where 237 of 40,000 prisoners have tested positive. 

* The Appeal’s Lauren Gill has a new story looking at Arkansas’ troubled Cummins Unit prison, the site of one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S. Gill opens with the story of Roy E. Davis, whose wife called the prison on May 6 to put money on her husband’s books so he could buy decent food. She’d heard reports that staffing shortages had left people housed in the prison with little to eat, but as told it wasn’t possible to add the money because her husband died that morning.

* California’s San Bernardino County reports that 19 people incarcerated at four jails tested positive for COVID-19: three at Adelanto’s High Desert Detention Center, three at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, seven at the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center and six at the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino. Only one was a new arrestee. 

* On Friday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced that all 10,000 people housed in the state’s correctional facilities had been tested for COVID-19.

* The Athens Banner-Herald reports an outbreak of COVID-19 at Coastal State Prison in Garden City, Georgia. Forty-two prisoners and one employee tested positive. Five prisoners have died—the most among Georgia’s 34 prisons. The wife of a man incarcerated at the prison told reporter Mary Landers that officials didn’t take necessary precautions to prevent an outbreak: “They gave them one, one mask per week. No hand sanitizer, no extra soap.”

* Stat News has an in-depth look at the California Institution for Men, where 13 prisoners have died and 502 have active cases of COVID-19. (Men transferred from the facility last week brought COVID-19 to two other California prisons due to lax testing.) “The outbreak at CIM,” Eileen Guo writes, “… illustrates how a slow and piecemeal response to the novel coronavirus put the prison’s standard operating procedures ahead of the demands of a public health emergency. That approach, combined with existing overcrowding, has fueled the spread of the virus.”