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 and Tuesday’s updates.
Earlier this month, we wrote about Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones’ refusal to require deputies working in his jails to wear masks—despite the jails being subject to court-ordered monitoring stemming from a 2018 lawsuit filed by Disability Rights California and Prison Law Office.
On June 15, attorneys for the county, Disability Rights California and Prison Law Office met with a magistrate judge via video conference and reached an agreement filed today in federal court. According to the filing, deputies will be required to carry a department-issued face covering at all times while on their shift and wear the face covering whenever they come within six feet of anyone in jail custody.
The agreement comes after testimony by two medical experts who explained the danger of asymptomatic virus transmission in a jail setting—not only among prisoners but also staff—and how chronic medical conditions frequently found among incarcerated people make them particularly vulnerable to more severe infection.
“The failure of Sacramento County Jail to require custody staff to wear masks presents a risk of correctional staff acquiring and transmitting COVID-19 infection within the jail and the Community,” the experts wrote. “This presents an immediate and ongoing risk of serious harm, including serious illness and death, to detainees and correctional staff at Sacramento County Jail, as well as the community at large.”
Last week, The Appeal’s Jerry Iannelli reported that Jones is set to be deposed in a federal lawsuit brought by the family of Marshall Miles, who died in October 2018 after three sheriff’s deputies pressed their knees into his shoulders and back at Sacramento’s main jail. Miles’ cry of “I can’t breathe” captured in jail video is echoed in numerous cases of police force including George Floyd.
The state agency that oversees California jails says it won’t be gathering any data on COVID-19, the Sacramento Bee’s Jason Pohl reports. The Bureau of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), which conducts inspections of county jails and maintains a data clearinghouse, told Pohl that it’s up to county sheriff’s departments to gather and publish their own COVID-19 data. But, as Pohl notes, many counties aren’t making this data public—he had to wait 10 days for information from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department—frustrating family members and advocates.
Michele Deitch, an expert on jails and prisons expert who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, told Pohl that the BSCC should be collecting this information.
“Finding out the numbers of people that are infected and how widespread the virus is, how many people are dying, just seems like the most basic information they should be gathering,” she said.
Linda Penner, who chairs the Board of State and Community Corrections, told Pohl she’s concerned that the counties won’t provide the state with accurate information. Though, as Pohl notes, sheriff’s departments are already required to provide the BSCC with a variety of data, ranging from monthly population reports to the number of prisoners who saw a dentist.
On April 3 the Massachusetts Department of Corrections ordered a lockdown (referred to, officially, as “limited movement”) at all of its prisons. According to multiple reports, prisoners were forced to remain in their cells for 23.5 hours a day, and allowed only 30 minutes out to shower, make phone calls or order products from the prison commissary. But as Solitary Watch’s Shabnam Danesh writes, the lockdown didn’t prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 at MCI Framingham, a women’s prison located roughly 20 miles west of Boston.
Earlier this month, the prison reported 99 active cases of COVID-19: 85 prisoners (out of 183) and 14 staff, the third highest number of cases among the state’s 16 prisons, according to the ACLU of Massachusetts’ case tracker. The case tracker also shows the DOC has released only 29 people to reduce exposure to COVID-19
In one four-person cell, Danesh writes, the women did their best to socially distance by sleeping in opposite directions on their bunks. But one woman ended up being diagnosed with COVID-19, and the other three were then placed into quarantine.
State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa has introduced legislation that would require the state’s Pretrial Services division to assess people who can’t afford bail, have less than six months left on their sentence, or who’ve been incarcerated for technical violations of parole or probation for release.
*This morning, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported the death of a man incarcerated at Avenal State Prison, bringing the total number of COVID-19 related deaths in California prisons up to 20. San Quentin continues to see new infections stemming from a recent botched prisoner transfer from the California Institution for Men (CIM). Prior to the transfer, San Quentin had no positive cases. There are now 456, nearly as many as CIM’s 495. Today, the UC San Francisco-based organization Amend and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health released a memo they’d sent to CDCR officials on June 13, warning that San Quentin wasn’t equipped to handle an outbreak. The memo also outlined recommendations to mitigate the spread of the virus. A press release today accompanying the memo blames Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDCR for failing to act: “They ignored the issue entirely, acted with deliberate indifference, and now an entire prison population and the surrounding community is at risk.”
*In April, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the New Jersey Department of Corrections failed to protect women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility from sexual abuse. Now, prisoners report that corrections officials are failing to protect them from COVID-19. NJSpotlight.com reports that 114 prisoners and 77 staff have tested positive for the virus and two women incarcerated at the prison have died.
“COVID-19 is spreading because of low supplies of masks, poor enforcement of social distancing, and inadequate quarantining of infected prisoners, according to emails from inmates received by prisoner advocates,” reporter Jon Hurdle writes.
*More than 1,100 people in Arizona jails, state prisons and federal immigration detention centers have recently tested positive for COVID-19 as have 369 employees of these facilities, the Associated Press reports. The increase in positives among incarcerated people comes as the state is reporting a spike in infections with hospital ICUs near capacity.