Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons
Florida media outlets had to sue to obtain information on COVID prison deaths; after preventable outbreaks, California replaces its prison medical director; and the Texas prison where Andrea Circle Bear died grapples with a new outbreak.
Kelly Davis Jul 07, 2020
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 Monday’s update.
Jeffrey Sand was the first Florida prisoner to die from COVID-19. Until the Miami Herald and other media outlets threatened a public records lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), little else was known about his death in April. The department only recently released some information on 16 of the 25 COVID-related deaths in Florida prisons.
Reporter Samantha Gross writes that on April 5 Sand, 69, went to the infirmary at Blackwater River Correctional Facility to complain about shortness of breath, a cough and diarrhea. He was returned to his cell after four days, where he died hours later. Other records obtained by Gross describe deaths similar to Sands.
So far, 101 Blackwater prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 and seven have died, more than at any other Florida prison.
The average age of Florida prisoners who died from COVID was 61, Gross reports. She notes that roughly 23,000 people in the state’s prisons are over 50, “a segment of the prison population that has increased by 12.5 percent over the past five years as the overall prison population has shrunk.”
To reduce the risk of Florida prisons being overwhelmed by COVID, state Sen. Jeff Brandes sponsored two bills to streamline the release process for elderly and infirm people. Yet, as Gross reports, “Both bills went nowhere.”
In this month’s issue of Reason Magazine, C.J. Ciaramella sums up the impact COVID-19 has had on U.S. prisons and jails, which he describes as “opaque, crowded, filthy institutions where the preferred administrative pace is glacial. They have been finely tuned over the past 50 years to resist outside oversight and sudden change.”
Numerous lawsuits seeking the release or transfer of medically vulnerable prisoners have been thwarted by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Ciaramella writes, which requires incarcerated people to go through a lengthy, byzantine grievance process before filing a lawsuit.
The PRLA presents such a major legal hurdle, that even liberal Supreme Court justices ruled against a group of elderly people housed in the Wallace Pack Unit, a geriatric prison in Texas, who sought early release. At least 18 Pack Unit prisoners have died. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement alongside the ruling, urging operators of U.S. prisons to do more for vulnerable inmates.
“It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons,” she wrote.
On July 3, family members of prisoners at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Washington County, Utah, held a vigil outside the jail to protest the lack of precautions being taken to stop the spread of coronavirus. COVID-19 cases in the jail have nearly doubled since last week.
Reporter Lexi Peery spoke to one woman who tried unsuccessfully to have her husband, who has heart and lung problems, moved to another facility. He’s among those who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
The jail’s chief deputy told Peery the outbreak was under control and that the number of infections were high “because we decided to expand the testing to the entire facility.”
After a series of missteps that resulted in COVID outbreaks in at least two California prisons that had previously reported no cases, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation replaced its top medical officer, Dr. R. Steven Tharratt, the Los Angeles Times reports. Tharratt will continue on as an advisor to J. Clark Kelso, who was appointed by a federal judge in 2008 to oversee medical care in California prisons.
Nearly 1,400 people incarcerated in San Quentin have fallen ill with COVID-19 after a botched transfer of infected prisoners from the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino. Another 223 prisoners have tested positive for the virus at the California Correctional Center (CCC) after three infected prisoners were transferred to CCC last month from San Quentin. CCC serves as the training center for prisoner fire crews and members of a dozen crews were exposed to the virus, the Sacramento Bee reported.
More than 50 women and two staff at a women’s federal medical prison in Fort Worth have tested positive for COVID-19, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. FMC Carswell, the only facility of its kind in the country, is where Andrea Circle Bear died on April 28, three weeks after giving birth while on a ventilator. In late April, the newspaper wrote about concerns among incarcerated women at FMC Carswell that the virus would spread rapidly through the facility, where they’re housed nine to a cell, their beds only 3 feet apart.
“A single case of coronavirus could have the effect of lighting a match on a book of matches,” the April 20 story says. At that point, two women—including Circle Bear—had been diagnosed with COVID.
The prison’s officer union also warned about the threat posed by COVID, filing a whistleblower complaint on April 7, alleging the federal Bureau of Prisons was taking a “cavalier approach” to the virus.
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