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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 an update from Monday.

Since June 1, cases of COVID-19 in Northern California’s San Quentin prison have risen from zero to 33.  Advocates for men incarcerated there are now demanding the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) take action to protect elderly and medically vulnerable people from contracting the disease. 

San Quentin was built in 1852—making it the state’s oldest prison—and is currently 15 percent over capacity. The prison had reported no cases of COVID-19 until 120 people were transferred there from the California Institution for Men (CIM) to relieve its overcrowding. CIM currently has 485 active cases of COVID-19, and yesterday reported its 15th coronavirus death. 

In a Zoom press conference held today, Adnan Khan, executive director of Re:Store Justice, called COVID-19 in prisons the “new lethal force.”

“We have continued to fail our incarcerated loved ones,” he said.

Advocates, family members and three San Quentin prisoners who called in to participate in the press conference criticized CDCR for not being more aggressive in testing prison guards, who they say are the likely source of the initial infection. California prisons stopped in-person visits in March and halted transfers from county jails.

Sue Chan, whose son Adamu is incarcerated in San Quentin, said he called her a few weeks ago to say that he felt ill and was having trouble breathing, especially at night. Chan, a healthcare worker, feared he’d contracted COVID-19. Adamu, who is Chan’s only child, told her he didn’t want to be tested because a positive test would send him to the prison’s solitary confinement block—the only unit in the prison with solid doors. He told her that if he was placed in solitary he wouldn’t be allowed phone calls. For that reason, Adamu was willing to take his chances in general population. He has since recovered, but Chan wondered what would have happened to him had he been quarantined. 

“I’m sometimes overwhelmed with fear,” she said. “When would I have been informed of his condition?”

Attorney Michael Bien, whose law firm represents people with mental disabilities housed in California prisons, said the state set a positive example when it released 3,500 people in late March. But Bien said there haven’t been any significant releases since then. He said CDCR has plans to release another group of people, but with restrictions: Their release date can’t be more than six months out and anyone convicted of a serious or violent crime is excluded, no matter how many years have passed since the date of the offense. 

Public health expert Rebecca Weiker, who also works with Re:Store Justice, said CDCR needs to reconsider its release criteria to include elderly people and those who’ve been imprisoned for years with no disciplinary problems. 

“Continuing to incarcerate people who are no longer a threat to public safety undermines our public health,” she said.

Today, the New York Times reports that cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails have spiked in recent weeks, with infections in prisons doubling in the last month and deaths increasing by 73 percent since mid-May.

Prison and jails officials told the Times that their approach to controlling the disease has been inconsistent and lacking a clear strategy. 

In an interview with the Times, 77-year-old Fred Roehler, who has chronic inflammatory lung disease and is currently incarcerated at a California prison, described COVID-19 as “like a sword hanging over my head. Any officer can bring it in.”

Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for New York City jails who now works as a consultant on prison and jail conditions, said it’s difficult to truly know the scope of COVID-19 infections behind bars, since many facilities aren’t conducting widespread testing. 

The story notes that states that typically spend less money on people in their prisons—like Texas, Tennessee and Arkansas—have been more aggressive with testing while states like Oregon, New York, Colorado and California have lagged on testing. The latter has tested only about 7 percent of its prisoners, the story notes. 

The ACLU and Disability Rights Florida have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of people incarcerated in the Broward County jail. The lawsuit, like dozens of others filed on behalf of people in U.S. prisons and jails, asks that medically vulnerable people be released from custody.

The lawsuit details the squalid, cramped conditions in the jail and demands that the Broward County Sheriff provide “appropriate and adequate” cleaning supplies, soap and hand sanitizer and reconfigure housing to allow for social distancing, among other measures to curb the spread of infection.

Yesterday, leaders of the Oregon House and Senate judiciary committees released a “Decompression Strategy for Oregon Corrections During the Pandemic.” The document details a multi-step plan for releasing nearly 2,000 people from Oregon prisons. Last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown requested a list of medically vulnerable prisoners who met a narrow criteria for possible release; the Oregon Department of Corrections turned over 100 names. Legislators say that’s a good start, but not enough.

“We cannot expect this problem to go away quickly,” the strategy document says. It notes that “while the rate of infection in Oregon counties is going down, infection rates within DOC are increasing dramatically, despite minimal contact with the outside world.” 

*Jail nurses in Wayne County, Mich., are warning that chronic understaffing is putting prisoners and employees at risk. “On some shifts, they say … just one nurse in charge of an entire jail,” WXYZ News reports. More than 200 people incarcerated in Wayne County jails have been diagnosed with COVID-19, as have 200 staffers.  

*Eleven women and three employees at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women have tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the ACLU of Kentucky to file a lawsuit Monday, demanding the release of prisoners with certain health conditions, including a woman with cystic fibrosis. “The petitioners in the lawsuit describe sharing a limited number of facilities in KCIW’s cramped living quarters,” the ACLU says in a statement. “Beds are an arm’s length apart and dozens of people are sharing a handful of toilets, showers, and sinks that are only cleaned once or twice daily, if at all.”