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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A new report finds that too many kids, particularly Black youth, continue to be held in dangerous juvenile detention facilities; California prison officials refused offers of free testing before and during San Quentin outbreak; and Gov. Gavin Newsom announces plans to release 8,000 incarcerated people.

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 Wednesday’s and Thursday’s updates.

A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation finds that after a surge of releases from youth detention facilities in March releases slowed in April and May, particularly for Black youth.

“In the months since the pandemic emerged in March, the disparities in detention that disadvantage Black youth have gotten worse,” the report says, “solely because Black youth have been released at a slower rate than their white peers.”

Locking kids up was dangerous before the pandemic, the report notes—confinement exacerbates existing health issues, disrupts schooling and can trap kids in a cycle of incarceration. But COVID-19 has made youth confinement even more dangerous. 

The Sentencing Project’s Josh Rovner has been tracking COVID-19 cases in juvenile facilities throughout the U.S., finding that as of July 10, 943 youth and 1,044 staff have tested positive. There have been more than 140 new COVID-19 diagnoses of detained youth in the last week alone.

Some state-specific data:

  • Recent data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice show that either a staff member or a young detainee have tested positive in each of its 42 facilities. In all, 136 youth and 134 workers have tested positive.
  • The Mingus Mountain Academy in Prescott Valley, Ariz., is reporting one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 at a child rehabilitation center in the U.S., the Arizona Mirror reports. Ninety-two children and 20 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.
  • On its website, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department maintains a timeline of positive tests, showing that at least one staff member—on most days multiple staff members—have tested positive for COVID-19. Due to privacy issues, there’s not a similar timeline for children’s facilities, but the TJJD reports that 106 youth in its care have tested positive for COVID-19. 

And, in Hays County, Texas, just outside of Austin, the father of a 17-year-old boy locked up in the county’s Juvenile Detention Center recently filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency alleging his son was placed in solitary confinement—first after being bullied, then after testing positive for COVID-19—and ignored. Solitary confinement can cause extraordinary psychological and developmental harm in children, and the teen, who has ADHD, autism and a speech impairment and recently lost his mother, was provided with only one counseling session, but not until he’d been in solitary for a month.  

In an op-ed published in The Appeal yesterday, public defender Brad Maurer and epidemiologists Seth J. Prins and Sandhya Kajeepeta call for the release of more people from New York City jails. According to data they obtained from NYC Correctional Health Services, via a public records request, far fewer people incarcerated in the city’s jails have been tested than officials have claimed.  

“Local jails play a central role in the overall spread of COVID-19,” they write. “Yet the weekly number of people put in jail has risen since early April.” 

Kajeepeta and Prins recently co-authored a study that found links between county incarceration rates and county mortality rates.  

“We feared that COVID-19 outbreaks in jails would lead to more widespread illness and death,” they write. “Tragically, this is precisely what has happened.”

Close to 1,000 people in Maricopa County jails in Arizona have tested positive for COVID-19. This week, the Phoenix New Times tells the story of one man whose experience likely explains how and why the virus spread so quickly through the jails. 

Alexis Icedo told reporter Josh Kelety that a few weeks ago, he started feeling ill, like he’d been  “in a car wreck or something.” Icedo reported his symptoms to jail staff, but two weeks passed before he was tested. Meanwhile, he was housed in a crowded pod, sleeping side-by-side with dozens of other inmates, sharing sinks, toilets and drinking fountains.

Last month, the ACLU of Arizona filed a class action lawsuit against Maricopa County and Sheriff Paul Penzone over conditions that led to the outbreak—lack of testing, failure to ensure social distancing and failure to provide cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

Kelety spoke to Maricopa County jail employees who told him the lawsuit’s allegations are accurate. 

One corrections officer told Kelety, “A lot of what the CDC is recommending, we’re not following it. It’s kind of ‘come in to work and make up stuff as we go.’”

The Nature Journal reports that Bay Area researchers repeatedly offered San Quentin prison officials free coronavirus testing—both before and after a massive outbreak at the prison—but were turned away.  

Fyodor Urnov, scientific director at the Innovative Genomics Institute at Berkeley, told reporter Amy Maxmen that he was given a “polite, respectful ‘Thank you,’” to his offer of free testing. 

“He wrote to San Quentin officials again when the outbreak emerged in June, and got a similar response,” Maxmen writes. 

Researchers at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco made the same offer and were also turned away.  

At a special hearing last week convened by the state Senate’s Public Safety Committee, two officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) told senators that the department lacked testing resources and had difficulty securing contracts to provide expanded testing in state prisons. 

*Gov. Gavin Newsom announced today plans to release thousands of people from California prisons to ease overcrowding. CDCR estimates that 8,000 people could be eligible for release by August—and that everyone will be tested for COVID-19 prior to release. The announcement follows an open letter from more than 200 legal scholars, medical professionals, researchers and justice reform advocates urging Newsom to release more people, and a press conference, held yesterday in front of San Quentin, where activists, politicians and stakeholders in the criminal legal system including State Sen. Scott Wiener and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, demanded “a severe reduction in prison population to address the COVID-19 humanitarian disaster playing out there.”

*Jail officials in Pulaski County, Ark., say they want to regularly test detainees for COVID-19—something recommended by experts—but have abandoned that plan because LabCorp, one of the largest commercial testing labs in the U.S., was taking up to two weeks to return test results. LabCorp told ABC News earlier this week that a recent increased demand for tests has resulted in delays. While the Pulaski jail hasn’t seen an outbreak, other Arkansas jails have experienced high levels of infection—the state’s Cummins Unit prison was the site of one of the largest outbreaks in the U.S. (1,060 people), according to the New York Times’ coronavirus tracker

*On July 4, more than 300 people incarcerated in Orange County, Calif., jails went on a hunger strike to compel jailers to resume serving hot meals and allow family visitations. Prisoners were being given cold sack lunches with sandwiches made with canned bologna that one advocate said came in boxes with the words “not for human consumption” on them. Voice of OC reports the hunger strike is over and the Sheriff’s Department says it’s “proactively working” on serving hot meals and resuming visits. The group Transforming Justice OC has started a GoFundMe page to raise money to put on accounts of people incarcerated in the jails so they can purchase food from the commissary.

*The Madison County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama is refusing to allow people booked into its jail to wear masks, telling that they might use the masks to harm themselves or others. “You give them face masks (with) a nose piece—metal pieces in them—they’re going to eat them,” a jail official told reporter Ashley Remkus. “They’re going to swallow them.” And, if that happened, the official told Remkus, “the public would question why inmates were given potentially dangerous weapons — face masks.” Courtney Moore, a 33-year-old man booked at the jail on misdemeanor charges related to a protest, told Remkus that the jail’s decision to withhold masks is “ridiculous. I was exposed to an unsafe condition. I think that is very, very irresponsible of them, knowing how important masks are, to continue to arrest people and put their health at risk.”