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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A California lawmaker describes the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s handling of San Quentin outbreak as “abhorrent,” private prison giant CoreCivic turns a profit amid a pandemic and an inspection of a Tennessee jail turns up “inadequate and harmful” conditions.

Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A California lawmaker describes the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s handling of San Quentin outbreak as “abhorrent,” private prison giant CoreCivic turns a profit amid a pandemic and an inspection of a Tennessee jail turns up “inadequate and harmful” conditions.


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 Tuesday’s update.


At a special hearing this morning of the California Senate’s Public Safety Committee, Sam Lewis, executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, asked if the spread of COVID-19 in California prisons would be getting as much attention if not for an outbreak at San Quentin, “an institution that’s located where there’s a great deal of power, influence, wealth and privilege.” 

San Quentin, the state’s oldest prison facility, overlooks the San Francisco Bay. As prisoners there fell ill after a botched transfer from the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino, the media and legislators took notice, prompting today’s hearing. But prior to the virus infiltrating San Quentin, there had been outbreaks in several other facilities. CIM was among the hardest hit/was the hardest hit by the virus. Sixteen people from CIM have died and more than 500 are currently infected. 

More than 1,100 people in San Quentin have tested positive for COVID-19.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, the committee’s chairperson, told Lewis that he wasn’t wrong. 

“Yes, the fact that where San Quentin is located does give it more attention,” she said, adding, “I think you know there have been many many people trying to get answers on this now for months.”

During the hearing, advocates, experts and legislators criticized the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for a slow, piecemeal, and reactive response to COVID-19. Glen Stailey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents prison guards, described CDCR’s handling of the virus as “dysfunctional and an outright failure” that put his members at risk. James King from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights described the response as “insufficient and fundamentally flawed.”

Built in 1853, San Quentin, has its own unique challenges, like a poor ventilation system and cells that lack solid doors. But systemwide problems at CDCR—understaffing and overcrowding—have made it difficult to control outbreaks. Most of CDCR’s 35 facilities are at or above capacity, according to a June 24 population report. Nearly half are at least one-third over capacity. 

Legislators questioned why CDCR isn’t requiring all employees to be tested and is relying on staff to self-report positive tests (So far, 847 staff have reported testing positive, 112 at San Quentin.) And Skinner described the May 30 prisoner transfer that brought COVID into San Quentin—transferees had gone weeks without being tested—as “abhorrent.” 

“By the end of May we fully understood and we had adequate testing,” she said. “How could there have been a transfer of people who have not been tested for two to three weeks?”

Speakers at the hearing implored CDCR to do more to decarcerate. Skinner urged CDCR to think of all possible ways to create more space in its facilities, and noted that the roughly 7,000 people who’ve been released amid the pandemic is insufficient.  

“I just want to make it clear that the numbers … of releases so far are releases that would have been on the natural,” she said. “The fact that since late March we’ve released some 7,000 is not highly unusual at all.”

David Sears, an infectious disease specialist at the UC San Francisco medical school who toured San Quentin earlier this month, said California won’t be able to get COVID-19 infections under control until the state gets a handle on outbreaks in prisons and jails—and doing that is “absolutely dependent on decarceration,” he said. 

He compared keeping the virus in check to playing chess; with overcrowding, “every space on that chess board already has one or two pieces on it.”

The population at San Quentin—where tents are being set up to house infected prisoners—should be reduced to at least 50 percent of current capacity, Sears said.

King, who was released from San Quentin six months ago, talked about friends who remain imprisoned there. King recently spoke with a friend who is 79 years old and sufferers from chronic health conditions.“I heard terror in his voice,” King said. Another has terminal cancer and recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“With all due respect,” King said, “none of these individuals I’m naming are a threat to public safety today. Each of these people have families they can return to immediately.”


*Correctional facilities run by private prison company CoreCivic hold more than 50,000 people and have seen some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks among U.S. prisons and jails. At the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville, Tenn., more 1,300 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19 and three have died. Yet CoreCivic, which is headquartered in Nashville, “still reported $25 million in profits during April and May,” the Nashville Post’s Matt Blois reports. It represents a decline from last year’s profits, which average out to $15.7 million a month, Blois writes. While the company isn’t making any projections, Blois writes, “executives are expressing confidence that the effects of the virus on the bottom line will be temporary.” 

*An independent inspection stemming from a recent lawsuit over conditions in the Shelby County (Tenn.) jail found that steps to stop the spread of COVID-19—which has infected 162 jail detainees and 86 employees— were “inadequate and harmful,” Memphis TV station WMC reports. A federal judge ordered the inspection, which faults the jail for not enforcing social distancing or making efforts to safely house elderly prisoners and those with serious medical conditions. While the inspection report notes that operating a large jail amid a pandemic is “challenging, complex and labor intensive,” it found that the Shelby County jail fell short in common-sense measures, like providing incarcerated people with adequate cleaning supplies and ensuring that everyone in the jail was properly wearing a mask. 

*Nearly 1 out of every 5 people incarcerated at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Washington County, Utah, have tested positive for COVID-19. Until two weeks ago, the jail had seen only one case. A sheriff’s deputy told an ABC news station that the outbreak started with three people who tested positive after intake, but were nonetheless placed in a larger housing unit where the virus spread quickly. In all, 59 of 308 prisoners have tested positive with more test results pending.