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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.

Roughly 120 fewer people were released from Illinois prisons between February and May 2020 than during the same four months last year, despite warnings from public health  experts that lower prison populations are the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 

The findings are part of a new report by the Illinois-based group Restore Justice. Researchers also looked at the race of people being released, and found that white people were 62 percent more likely to be released early than Black people and 79 percent more likely to be released early than Latinx people. 

The report notes that Illinois prisons currently hold fewer people than last year, partly due to sentencing reform,and also because the state temporarily halted transfers from county jails. But it describes efforts to release additional people as “anemic.” 

“We know COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to older people,” the report says, “yet 87 percent of people between age 50 and 59 incarcerated in March are still incarcerated. For people 60-64, it’s 89 percent, and for those 65 and older, it’s 86 percent.”

The report notes that only one Illinois prison—Vandalia Correctional Center—is at an occupancy level that allows people to maintain a safe distance.

The report makes a number of recommendations for releasing more people and keeping the people who remain in custody safe. Recommendations include using a centralized process for early release decisions to remove subjectivity and bias, conducting an internal review of prior early releases to identify whether racial bias may have played a role, faster clemency and medical furlough reviews—as well as reviews of young people imprisoned under harsh, outdated sentencing laws—and make release data publicly available. 

The Oregonian obtained a list of 75 medically vulnerable state prisoners who are being considered for a commutation from Gov. Kate Brown.

The list is mostly comprised of white men. Only 20 women are included. Eight of the names are Black people and four are Latinx, even though Black and Latinx folks are overrepresented in Oregon prisons. 

Roughly half of the people on the list were already scheduled to be released this year; 25 are scheduled for release next year. 

On Monday, leaders of the Oregon House and Senate judiciary issued a multi-step plan for releasing nearly 2,000 people from state prisons. The “Decompression Strategy for Oregon Corrections During the Pandemic” noted 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.” 

In March, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about Shauntrice Murry, a 45-year-old woman with terminal cancer incarcerated at Georgia’s Arrendale State Prison. With in-person visits cancelled, she feared she’d die in prison. . The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted her a medical release—she had a room waiting at her cousin’s house—but gave prosecutors 90 days to raise objections. Murray, the newspaper reported Tuesday, died June 12, a week before the 90 days were up.

Over the last couple of weeks, COVID-19 cases in Maricopa County jails have jumped from 30 to at least 356, the Arizona Republic reports. On Tuesday, the ACLU and two private law firms filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine incarcerated people whose underlying health conditions make them vulnerable to dying from COVID-19, or who are held because they can’t afford bail.

The lawsuit comes two weeks after the ACLU of Arizona sent Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone a letter demanding that he test everyone in his jails and make the results public.  

The lawsuit alleges that the Sheriff hasn’t taken adequate measures to curb the spread of the virus and “the dramatic outbreak at the Maricopa County jails proves the need for immediate and significant public health interventions.”

The lawsuit seeks the immediate release of a small number of medically vulnerable and disabled pretrial detainees who can’t afford bail, and requests the implementation of a process  to assess whether any sentenced medically vulnerable prisoners can be safely released. 

Elsewhere in Arizona, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb announced that he tested positive for COVID-19. On Tuesday, Sheriff Lamb said that he had been invited to join President Donald Trump at the White House and was tested before the meeting. In early May, Sheriff Lamb said he would not enforce a COVID-19 related stay-at-home order imposed by Gov. Doug Ducey. 

*Trousdale Turner Correction Center in Hartsville, Tenn., was the site of one of the earliest—and most severe—outbreaks of COVID-19. More than 1,300 prisoners tested positive and three died from the virus. Now, a second round of testing shows that 62 prisoners have tested  positive for COVID-19. According to data posted by the Tennessee Department of Correction, 87 people in its prisons have an active infection while 3,077 have recovered. 

*Yesterday, as part of its ongoing series memorializing people who’ve died from COVID-19, the New York Times published an obituary for Vanee Sykes. Sykes, 53, co-founded Hope House, a transitional living facility for women coming out of prison, and was the director of outreach for prison reform organization Witness to Mass Incarceration. After she was released from prison in 2014, Sykes dedicated her life to helping women and LGBTQI people newly released from custody. The obituary says that when Sykes fell ill with coronavirus, she’d been working on plans to create another Hope House.

*This morning, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced the death of an 18th person from complications related to COVID-19. The man, whose name hasn’t been released, was incarcerated at the California Institution for Men in Chino (CIM). CIM currently reports 483 active cases of COVID-19, according to CDCR’s patient tracker

*Columbus’ WSYX reports that Ohio health officials believe COVID-19 has “run its course” at the Marion Correctional Institution—the prison that at one point had the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction reports no active cases of COVID-19 in the prison, though 244 people in other Ohio prisons are currently infected and nearly 15,000 prisoners are in quarantine.