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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 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 for COVID-19 have seen rapid spread of the virus. On a daily basis over the next several months, The Appeal will examine 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 Monday’s update.

To prevent the spread of coronavirus, people incarcerated in U.S. jails have for months been denied in-person visits, the ability to attend religious services and programs like AA and NA and educational classes. But jails that managed to keep infections to a minimum, or had reported no infections at all, are now seeing spikes in cases. 

Just a few examples:

  • Last week, the Jacksonville (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office confirmed that 20 people in a Duval County jail tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak was traced to a doctor working on contract for the county’s three jails.  
  • Today, The Nashville Scene’s Steven Hale reports that 48 people detained at a Nashville jail have tested positive for COVID-19. According to a press release from the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, all 502 people in the Correctional Development Center in Nashville, will be tested. Hale tweeted that the outbreak is “the largest cluster of active cases in Nashville’s jail system since the pandemic began.”
  • The jail in Yakima County, Wash., is also seeing its largest outbreak. The Yakima Herald reports that 19 people in the jail tested positive over the last week. An official told the Herald that all prisoners and staff are now required to wear masks “that will be exchanged for clean ones every two weeks.”
  • After 13 people incarcerated at a Fresno County jail tested positive for COVID-19, the Fresno Superior Court agreed to extend an emergency order to release people who’ve committed low-level crimes on $0 bail. Fresno Countyhas seen a spike in cases, though Sheriff Margaret Mims has publicly opposed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order and says her deputies won’t enforce the state’s requirement to wear masks.

Last week, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Barbara Lee introduced the Dismantle Mass Incarceration for Public Health Act. If enacted, the law would allow the release of people from prisons and jails as long as there’s a declared public health emergency and for one year after. Any state that doesn’t comply with the law would be ineligible for a federal Justice Assistance Grant, the leading source of federal justice funding to state and local governments.

On June 18, Tlaib was a panelist on The Appeal’s The Briefing for a discussion about how mass incarceration is fueling COVID-19. Tlaib described outbreaks in prisons and jails as a “humanitarian crisis.”

“It’s a death sentence to be in a system this broken,” she said, “you really are saying, ‘You’re disposable.’”

*The Charlotte Observer’s Ames Alexander looks at how North Carolina prison officials transferred thousands of prisoners—sometimes as a form of punishment—leading to COVID-19 being introduced to prisons that previously had no cases. On June 16, Alexander reports, a judge ordered the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to cease all transfers unless they were medically necessary. Prison officials then agreed to take certain precautions. “Defendants are transferring incarcerated individuals between facilities without properly protecting those individuals, or preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier Jr. wrote in his order.

*The Intercept’s Nick Pinto reports on medical neglect at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn that prompted a lawsuit by prisoners who said their COVID-19 symptoms went ignored. In a ruling earlier this month, Judge Rachel Kovner dismissed the case after finding that plaintiffs had failed to show a pattern of “deliberate indifference”—the legal standard to prevail in such a case and a step above negligence. Kovner agreed that MDC failed to provide adequate care and officials had intentionally destroyed many prisoners’ sick call requests in order to prevent them from being used as evidence in the case. She also agreed to release 210 requests for medical attention to The Intercept that hadn’t been destroyed. “The picture painted by the now-public sick calls is a grim one,” Pinto writes. “The full collection of medical requests revealed in the filing show just how desperate some of the incarcerated people became.”

*There are now 365 cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin. As we’ve reported, the Northern California prison had no cases prior to a prisoner transfer in late May. Today in The Appeal, Juan Morena Haines, a journalist incarcerated in San Quentin, writes about fellow prisoners’ reluctance to report feeling ill. “…[E]veryone knows they’ll be sent to Carson [unit], known as The Hole, where prisoners are kept in the punishing conditions of solitary confinement.”

*Most of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks have been at overcrowded prisons. ProPublica’s Dara Lind takes a look at the most notorious, the Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) in central Ohio, which continues to top the New York Times’ list of the largest coronavirus outbreaks. Lind notes that while Ohio’s prison population shrunk due to sentencing reforms, MCI’s has steadily increased. In March 2010, there were 2,300 people incarcerated at MCI; in March of this year, there were 2,538 people housed there, putting the facility at 153 percent of capacity. Pickaway Correctional Institution, also in Ohio and second on the New York Times’ list, is 50 percent over capacity, Lind reports. The two facilities are responsible for 48 of Ohio prisons’ 76 coronavirus deaths.