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 and Wednesday’s updates.
In April, Civil Rights Corps filed an emergency class action lawsuit in federal court over conditions in Maryland’s Prince George’s County Jail. The criminal justice reform nonprofit’s complaint alleged the jail had ignored CDC guidelines, causing a coronavirus outbreak. Anyone who tested positive for COVID—or were suspected of having the virus—were put into filthy cells “where the walls are covered in feces, mucus, and blood,” the lawsuit says. As well, uninfected prisoners were placed on 23-hour lockdown, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also alleged the jail was illegally detaining more than 100 people who’d been cleared for release or who’d paid bail but tested positive for COVID-19.
The lawsuit asked federal Judge Paula Xinis to order the jail to implement CDC guidelines, provide all prisoners with adequate hygiene and cleaning supplies and transfer medically vulnerable people to another facility or place them on home detention, among other requests.
In May, Xinis found that Prince George’s County acted with “reckless disregard” in its handling of the outbreak, but only ordered jail officials to submit plans to improve conditions. Xinis also recently dismissed sworn declarations by more than 40 prisoners, describing them as “unhelpful” and “not relevant.”
To highlight the dire conditions in the jail and amplify the voices of incarcerated people, the impact advocacy project Hear Us asked activists, actors and attorneys to read aloud the lawsuit’s complaint and sworn declarations. The videos are featured on the website GaspingforJustice.org.
A related signature-gathering and social media campaign targets state’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy, whom campaign organizers say promised bail reform, but has done little to advocate for the release of the jail’s pre-trial detainees.
A GEO Group stockholder is suing the for-profit operator of private prisons, alleging the company misled investors about the handling of COVID-19 in its halfway house facilities. “Defendants … failed to disclose that GEO Group maintained woefully ineffective COVID-19 response procedures [and] those inadequate procedures subjected residents of the Company’s halfway houses to significant health risks,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit was prompted by a series of stories by The Intercept’s Liliana Segura about growing outbreaks in federal halfway houses. Her most recent story, published July 3, focuses on the Leidel Comprehensive Sanction Center in Houston where at least two people have died. =
“Halfway house residents would seem to be ideal candidates for home confinement, given that they are at the end of their sentences,” Segura writes. “Yet residents at Leidel and other facilities say their requests for home confinement have been repeatedly denied.”
Widespread testing is revealing the extent to which COVID-19 has spread through U.S. prisons and jails. Here’s a snapshot:
- Nearly 500 people incarcerated at the Dominguez State Jail in Bexar County, Texas, have tested positive. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice told KENS 5 that asymptomatic cases are driving the increase in infections, but family members of incarcerated people say their loved ones describe sharing cramped quarters with people who are obviously ill.
- Also in Texas, the Stiles Unit in Beaumont and the Goodman unit in neighboring Jasper County are reporting 672 and 198 active cases, respectively. A Jasper County judge described the Goodman outbreak as a “fire ant hill,” the Beaumont Enterprise reports. In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed outbreaks at the Stiles Unit and two other Beaumont detention facilities for a statewide spike in new COVID-19 cases. This afternoon, Charles Ornstein of ProPublica reported that the region that includes Beaumont and Galveston—home to more than 1.3 million people—has one open ICU bed.
- One hundred people incarcerated at the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center in Pasco County, Florida, have tested positive for coronavirus since late June, the Tampa Bay Times reports. “[A]s cases skyrocket in Florida and beyond,” the Times’ Kathryn Varn writes, “experts say that increases the chances that the pandemic will breach local jails, where it could quickly spread.”
“It’s another boiling summer in the San Joaquin Valley, where temperatures often top 100 degrees. And once again, the air conditioning is on the fritz at the Mendota federal prison 35 miles west of Fresno,” the Sacramento Bee’s Kate Irby writes.
In addition to struggling with scorching temperatures, people incarcerated at Mendota are being subjected to a coronavirus lockdown, which means that they aren’t allowed outside and have limited access to showers.
The prison was built in 2012, but has experienced ongoing problems with air conditioning and a toxic mold outbreak in a control room where guards are stationed 24 hours a day. When Irby called the Federal Bureau of Prisons for comment, the person who answered the phone refused to give Irby their name and denied there was anything wrong with the air conditioning.
According to the BOP, three staff and one incarcerated person at Mendota have active cases of COVID-19.
The Intercept’s Natasha Lennard writes about the Adirondack Correctional Facility, the state of New York’s “new” geriatric prison. Until recently, the facility housed 16 and 17 year-olds who were prosecuted as adults. In May, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to transfer the teens to another facility and move in 96 elderly prisoners, because upstate New York had seen fewer cases of coronavirus.
But as of Wednesday morning, at least one person at the prison had tested positive for the virus.
“For family members and justice advocates, the prison nursing home presents no less than a potential massacre,” Lennard writes. “And what’s more, many of these elderly incarcerated people are now further removed from relatives and loved ones than they had been in previous facilities.”
The COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin, which has infected more than 1,300 prisoners, may be leading to an increase in cases—and hospitalizations—in Alameda County, the East Bay Express reports, prompting the director of the county’s Health Care Services Agency to recommend a pause in reopening the local economy.
Today, California politicians, including State Senator Scott Wiener, gathered outside San Quentin to “demand a severe reduction in prison population to address the COVID-19 humanitarian disaster playing out there.”