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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. The Appeal examines the scale of the crisis, numbers of infected and dead, around the nation.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photos from Getty images.

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.

On Thursday, a group of more than two dozen professors from universities including Berkeley Law and the UC Irvine Law School, sent a letter to Los Angeles Times editor Norman Pearlstine, criticizing a May 17 story “California’s prisons and jails have emptied thousands into a world changed by coronavirus.” The piece examined challenges people face after they’re released from prison and jail due to COVID-19 and quoted law enforcement officials who believe the releases were a poorly thought out response to the virus.  

“There was mass hysteria to de-incarcerate over COVID-19,” Alameda County police Sgt. Ray Kelly told the Times, “and in our county it’s proven not to be based on fact or scientific evidence, but based on fear.”

But the article acknowledged that only 30 of the nearly 1,000 people released from Alameda County’s Santa Rita jail— which has faced a slew of lawsuits over the last several years alleging inadequate medical care—have been rearrested.

The letter describes the article as “misleading and harmful,” using anecdotal evidence to suggest the prison and jail releases have caused an increase in crime.

“While there are always small numbers of people who reoffend quickly after release,” the letter says, “there is simply no evidence that these virus-related jail releases have, on the whole, increased either crime or recidivism.”

The May 17 article followed an April 30 story from the Times in which LAPD Chief Michel Moore criticized the California Judicial Council’s emergency $0 bail order, saying “career criminals are now exploiting the situation.”

The letter also challenged comments made by Jay Jordan, executive director for Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit focused on criminal legal reform. “Seventy-five percent of people getting out of prison right now have no plan. Nowhere to go,” Jordan told the Times. 

The letter describes Jordan’s comment as “entirely false” and not based in research. 

In an interview Thursday, Jordan said his comment referred specifically to the 3,500 people released from California prisons due to COVID-19. Under normal circumstances, he said, folks coming out of prison face challenges with jobs, housing and accessing services.

“What COVID did was greatly exacerbate that reality,” he said. “This COVID pandemic has been highlighting the gaps in our criminal justice system, and one of the gaps is that we put too many people into prison and when they come home, we do too little to ensure that they’re successful.” 

People being released to parole from California prisons do have plans, Jordan said, but early release undermined those plans. 

“We’ve been getting massive calls from people in prison with this same issue,” he said. “While people may have had parole plans and housing set up for their original [release] dates, because they were released so fast, people did not have the opportunity to call their family members, to call the organizations that they would have gone to if they were released on their original date. That was a huge gap.”

Jordan’s comments are echoed in an L.A. Times editorial, published today, that pulls no punches in criticizing California’s treatment of people on parole. The editorial is the second in a series of three. The first, published Wednesday, didn’t specifically mention the May 17 story (editorial board and newsrooms are distinctly separate entities), but linked to comments elsewhere by law enforcement officials and is best summed up by its title: “No, criminals aren’t rampaging across California because of our zero-dollar bail policy.”  

In his Substack, Cuomo Files, Guardian columnist Ross Barkan writes that New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo is stingier with prison releases than U.S. Attorney Bill Barr. “Despite the fact that state prisons remain vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks, Cuomo has outright refused to grant clemency to a vast majority of elderly and at-risk inmates.”

Nearly 500 people in New York state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the New York Department of Corrections’ daily update (only 1,087 inmates have been tested, according to this breakdown by facility — a fraction of the nearly 43,000 people in New York state jails. Equally staggering is the number of correctional officers who’ve tested positive: 1,274. To date, 16 prisoners and four staff have died. 

“With such a limited amount of testing,” Barkan writes, “it’s possible there are many infections going undetected. If infections aren’t sufficiently tracked, it could be harder for the state to stop the spread of the virus if it appears at a certain facility.”

And then, the kicker:

It’s notable that Donald Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, who is a longtime advocate of mass incarceration, has moved a higher percentage of inmates to home confinement than Cuomo, despite the fact that Barr has been roundly criticized for dragging his feet during the coronavirus crisis. As of May 21, about 3,050 federal inmates have been moved to home confinement, which represents around 1.8 percent of the people under the Bureau of Prisons’ supervision, according to ProPublica. While this number may seem paltry—don’t worry, it is—Cuomo’s percentage is worse. So far, only about .008 percent of New York State’s prison population has been released.

On Tuesday, Wyoming Public Media published a scathing report on COVID-19 deaths in Indiana prisons. The piece opens with the story of 73-year-old Scottie Evans, who was scheduled to be released to home detention on May 1 but died April 13. Fellow prisoners told reporter Jake Harper that Evans had been ill for more than a week-and-a-half—struggling to breathe—and was repeatedly returned to his cell by medical staff.

Harper reported that as of May 22, 18 prisoners had died—or are suspected to have died— from COVID-19. That total has since increased by one.

On Thursday, the Orleans Parish (New Orleans) Sheriff released its COVID-19 data; the office said that 43 positive people are in custody. Matt Sledge, a reporter with The New Orleans Advocate, tweeted that the numbers represent “a dramatic drop from yesterday’s 87.”