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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A new report gives all 50 states failing grades on how they’ve handled COVID-19 in correctional facilities, infections continue to creep into jails and the Palm Beach post takes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to task for his coronavirus failures.

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 Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s updates.

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU gives all 50 states failing grades on their handling of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. No state scored better than a D-. 

“We find that most states have taken very little action,” the report says, “and while some states did more, no state leaders should be content with the steps they’ve taken thus far.”

Grades were based on a point system, with states receiving points for reducing incarcerated populations—a necessary step, experts say, to allow for social distancing, reducing the burden on staff and saving the lives of elderly and medically vulnerable people. Points were also awarded for posting and regularly updating infection and testing data, conducting proactive testing and providing prisoners and custodial staff with adequate personal protective equipment.

Points were deducted for COVID-related deaths.

Tennessee earned the highest score, earning 26.35 out of a possible 100 points. Wyoming scored the lowest, with 8.15 points. 

“The consequences are as tragic as they were predictable,” the report says. “As of June 22, 2020, over 570 incarcerated people and over 50 correctional staff have died and most of the largest coronavirus outbreaks are in correctional facilities.” 

According to the report, only five states—Massachusetts, Michigan, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Vermont—have tested everyone in their prisons. Only three states—New Mexico, Massachusetts, and West Virginia—have tested all correctional staff. And while most states scored the maximum points for posting data, none has disaggregated the data by race (though six states provided a racial breakdown to The Marshall Project).

The report’s authors note that they are “skeptical” of some of the data, largely due to a wide variation in “case-fatality rates”—the number of deaths relative to the number of infections—resulting from a lack of testing. 

“Why does Tennessee report 785 infections for every death and Alabama reports 10 infections for every death? Both states have similarly-sized prison populations and both states report 4 confirmed COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated people. But it would appear that Tennessee is doing a lot of testing and Alabama is not.”

The report describes the U.S. as being in the early stages of the pandemic—meaning there’s still time for state leaders to act.

“States that have reduced the population density in correctional facilities—starting by releasing old and frail people especially vulnerable to COVID-19—have slowed the spread of the virus more effectively and saved more lives.”

A report published in April by The Justice Collaborative and Data for Progress (The Appeal is an editorially independent project of The Justice Collaborative) warned of the threat coronavirus posed to jails in rural communities, where small healthcare systems could easily be overwhelmed  by an outbreak. 

This week, many rural communities reported outbreaks not only in jails, but also the surrounding community. 

According to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, at least 71 prisoners and two employees have tested positive at the jail in Troup County, which is also dealing with a community outbreak. 

“This month, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has more than doubled to 863,” AJC reports, adding that 24 residents have died.

Roughly 70,000 people live in Troup County, and 20 percent live at or below the poverty line. More than one-third are Black, according to census data. Troup is part of the LaGrange metro area, ACJ reports, “which is experiencing the six highest growth of cases in the nation. 

The Palm Beach Post published a sharply worded editorial Wednesday taking the public and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to task for not doing enough to prevent outbreaks in the state’s correctional facilities. 

“If there were ever a metaphor for a neglected petri dish for the novel coronavirus, it’s Florida’s jails and prisons,” it says.

The editorial credits jail and prison officials for taking steps to sanitize facilities, quarantine people exposed to the virus and ease overcrowding, “But it’s not enough.”

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, 1,860 people in Florida prisons and 403 correctional staff have tested positive for COVID-19. 

In Hays County, Texas, a jail official blamed a community outbreak for a jail outbreak. 

As of Wednesday, 18 of 25 people incarcerated at the Hays County jail and nine corrections officers tested positive for COVID-19. 

“We were waiting and wondering when the day was going to come when we were going to get some corona in the jail,” Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler told Austin’s KVUE. “And that day finally got here a little over a week ago.” 

A jail captain told county commissioners that it was difficult for prisoners and staff to keep a safe distance due to overcrowding.

The county’s Emergency Management Director, Ruben Becerra, urged law enforcement to exercise discretion over jail bookings,  adding, “We literally need you to step up and not fill our jails even further.” 

KVUE notes that Texas prisons have seen a more than 38,000 percent spike in coronavirus cases.

Death row is supposed to be the most secure part of any prison, but in San Quentin, an uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak has infected more than 160 condemned prisoners, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.  

Only 27 days ago, San Quentin was reporting no active cases of COVID-19; it now has the most cases of any prison in California, 539, stemming from a botched prisoner transfer. 

The state continues to lag in testing, reporting today that only 37,010, or one-third, of the roughly 114,000 people in its custody have been tested.