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 Monday and Tuesday.
For months, advocates for people housed in California’s forensic psychiatric hospitals have urged the state to discharge patients who can safely be released to reduce the burden on staff and allow for social distancing.
Their requests have been unsuccessful, and this month five state hospitals reported cases of COVID-19. As of June 15, 66 patients and 25 employees have become infected with COVID-19. Most of the positive cases—63 patients and 20 staff—are at Patton State Hospital, a 1,527-bed facility in San Bernardino. Hospitals in Atascadero, Coalinga and Napa report one patient case each; other positive staff cases are at Atascadero, Metropolitan (Los Angeles) and Napa.
It’s a sharp increase from June 8, when a Department of State Hospital (DSH) spokesperson told The Appeal that 31 patients and 19 employees tested positive for COVID-19.
A person can be committed to a forensic psychiatric hospital for a variety of reasons, ranging from being found incompetent to stand trial to needing inpatient treatment as a condition of parole.
An April 20 letter, co-authored by representatives from the California Public Defenders Association, Disability Rights California, the ACLU of Northern California and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
The authors argue that it’s difficult for people to remain at a safe distance in hospital common areas, where they get their meals and make phone calls. Patients also share bathrooms and multiple people share rooms.
The letter urges DSH to compile a list of patients who can safely be released—people who are no longer experiencing symptoms, who voluntarily take their medication, or who have successfully been weaned off medication and pose no threat to the community.
“Despite the legal category that compelled placement in a DSH facility,” the letter says, “these patients no longer need treatment in a secure and locked facility. Many have family or friends to support them in the community if released.”
“We always knew it was a question of when, no if,” patients would be infected, Anne Hadreas, an attorney with Disability Rights California, told The Appeal.
A DSH spokesperson told The Appeal that the department is working with local and state public health officials to track the source of infections in order to protect patients and staff.
Hadreas said she’s been hearing from patients on an almost daily basis who say they’re frightened.
“I don’t want to die here,” they’ve told her.
At minimum, Hadreas would like to see DSH find temporary alternative placements for some patients.
“To the extent people can be released in any safe way, we would encourage it,” she said.
On Monday, Unlock the Box, a national campaign working to end solitary confinement in detention facilities, released a report looking at the use of lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19. Lockdowns and solitary confinement are essentially the same thing, the report says, requiring people to remain in tiny cells for 22 or 23 hours a day.
Researchers found a 500 percent increase in the use of solitary confinement since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The normally punitive measure is being used in both adult and juvenile facilities, the report says. Some youth facilities are isolating kids “because guards have called in sick and there is no one to supervise youth in common areas.”
The report notes that solitary confinement on its own is unhealthy, let alone when it’s used on someone who’s sick.
“Units built for isolation are usually cramped, dismal, and unsanitary, and feel like
torture chambers even to otherwise healthy individuals,” the report says. “While COVID-19 presents a grave and growing threat to incarcerated people and correctional staff, the use of solitary confinement will increase, rather than curb, the spread of the virus.”
The report urges jail and prison administrators to look for alternatives to solitary confinement. If someone needs to be isolated, it shouldn’t be in parts of the jail used for punitive solitary confinement and anyone placed in medical isolation should be in frequent contact with medical staff and not be denied access to recreation time, phone calls, TV or reading materials.
The report echoes calls from correctional health experts in urging detention facilities to release as many people as safely possible to allow prisoners to keep a safe distance and reduce the threat of infection.
“Significantly reducing prison and jail populations remains the best way to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people, correctional staff, and communities from COVID-19.”
*Yesterday, The Appeal wrote about pleas from advocates, prisoners and family members to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to release more people from San Quentin prison. At the time of the press conference, the Northern California prison reported 33 cases of COVID-19. The number of cases has increased 47, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s patient tracker.
*The Texas Observer reports that on July 1, Texas prisons will start accepting jail transfers, which had ceased in mid-April to stop the spread of COVID-19. The news comes as many Texas prisons are grappling with active infections and the state has seen an increase in cases.
*The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has tested a scant 12 percent of the more than 146,000 people in its custody. Of those tested, 35 percent were positive and 2,536 tests are pending. The BOP is reporting nearly 1,200 active cases, with more than half at FCI Butner, a low-security prison in North Carolina. As of today, 85 people in federal custody have died from COVID-19. An analysis by The Appeal found that most of the people who died from the virus were housed at low-security and minimum prisons, medical facilities that house prisoners with serious medical or mental health needs, and re-entry facilities.
*In a Wall Street Journal commentary published Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that COVID-19 cases are increasing in several states and argued that “increased testing has allowed public health officials to identify most of the outbreaks in particular settings—prisons, nursing homes and meatpacking facilities—and contain them.” The Vice President’s claims about containment in correctional settings run counter to statements by public health experts like Yale Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Gregg Gonsalves who has said that “prisons and jails are institutional amplifiers of infectious disease” both “inside and outside corrections facilities.”