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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Critics say California’s release plan is an inadequate response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the state’s prison system, 42 percent of Louisiana prisoners tested for COVID-19 are positive, and conditions at Texas and Indiana prisons get the attention of lawmakers.

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 Friday’s update.

On Friday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to release up to 8,000 people from state prisons by the end of August. 

Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and an expert on correctional policy, dissected the plan in a recent post on her blog, where she’s written extensively about COVID-19 in California prisons and the state’s inadequate response to the virus. 

Aviram calls Newsom’s release plan too little, too late, and that concerns about public health take a backseat to worries about public backlash. The majority of the releases will be people with a year or less left to serve and who fit the “non-non-non” criteria—nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenses—that guided prior efforts to reduce California’s prison population.  

“I feel like a broken record, but this apparently needs to be said again,” Aviram writes. “There is no correlation between the crime of commitment and the risk to public safety.” 

Aviram points out that 8,000 people is only a small fraction of the current population of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR)—112,500 according to a recent report. The report shows that most CDCR prisons are over capacity. Nine prisons, Aviram writes, are “morbidly overpopulated.” 

A recent report by researchers from UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley recommended that the population at San Quentin—where an outbreak has infected nearly 2,000 prisoners, 200 staff and killed 10 people—needs to be reduced by half to allow for adequate social distancing. 

In a July 10 tweet shortly after the state announced its prisoner release plan, Adnan Khan, executive director of Re:Store Justice who spent four years in San Quentin, tweeted that the governor’s plan falls short:

Today, Re:Store Justice reported that on July 12 an incarcerated person from San Quentin died at an outside hospital from apparent COVID-19 related complications. 

After being questioned by reporters at The Louisiana Illuminator, a nonprofit newsroom that launched last month, the Louisiana Department of Corrections released information about coronavirus testing in its prisons. 

The results, experts say, are cause for concern.  

The department has tested only about 10 percent of the 15,000 people in its prisons, yet 42 percent of those tests have come back positive. 

“The rate of positive tests in prisons is far higher than would be tolerated in the wider Louisiana community,” writes Julie O’Donoghue, a reporter with The Illuminator.

 The need for widespread testing in detention facilities has taken on new urgency as prison and jails are increasingly experiencing large COVID-19 outbreaks. According to the New York Times coronavirus tracker, of the 25 largest outbreak clusters, 20 have been in prisons and jails. 

In response to O’Donoghue’s findings, Andrea Armstrong, a professor at the Loyola University New Orleans, College of Law, wrote an op-ed published by The Illuminator encouraging Louisiana corrections officials to boost testing and make more data publicly available. 

Armstrong criticized recent comments by Dr. Alex Billioux, the state’s assistant secretary of health, that minimized the risk COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails pose to the community. 

“Billioux said prisons and jails are not public health risks because they are ‘contained,’” Armstrong writes. “His reasoning is not only wrong, it is also dangerous to public health in our state.”

Armstrong describes prisons as “mini-cities,” scattered throughout the state and argues they should be treated as such. This includes collecting and publishing data on COVID-19 testing, infections, and deaths, something the Louisiana DOC hadn’t been doing until last week.

“The public health of our state is irrevocably linked with the health of people who are incarcerated,” she writes.

In May, The Appeal’s Jerry Iannelli reported on the Louisiana DOC’s troubling data gathering practices surrounding COVID-19, particularly at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. “The true number of coronavirus-positive people at Angola—at least 115—is not in the DOC data,” Iannelli wrote, “but is instead buried in a ‘Situational Awareness Report’ published by the Louisiana Business Emergency Operations Center.” 

Recent widespread testing at the Dominguez State Jail in San Antonio, Texas, has turned up almost 500 cases of coronavirus, prompting one state lawmaker to demand that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice brief him weekly on conditions at the jail.  

State Rep. Philip Cortez told news station KENS5 that the outbreak at the jail was “unacceptable.” 

KENS5 also reports that families are having trouble communicating with loved ones in the jail because phone calls have been curtailed due to the facility being on lockdown.  

San Antonio’s KSAT spoke to the father of Paul Alexander Casiano, who died on June 27 after being transferred from the jail to a Galveston hospital. Casiano’s father—who asked to remain anonymous—said he and other family members repeatedly tried to call the hospital, but were never able to speak to Casiano. 

He criticized the jail for not taking precautions that might have saved his son. 

”They put all the offenders in one room with no masks, no protection, nothing,” he said. “So if one had the virus, he would spread it to the others that were there.”

At a press conference Saturday in front of the Indiana Women’s Prison, state Rep. Karlee Macer and State Sen. J.D. Ford said they received “disturbing” reports about conditions inside the facility, where prisoners have described long periods of lockdown in their cells with no access to toilets, running water or air conditioning. 

“We are hearing that people are passing out from heat exhaustion, we are hearing that women are experiencing seizures,” Ford said, according to a report by Indiana Public Media.

The press conference follows a report by Side Effects Public Media, in which an advocate described lockdown conditions as akin to torture and said her request to the governor to ease lockdown restrictions was denied.  

A prison employee quoted in the story said that women were given few opportunities to leave their cells for bathroom breaks, so they limited their water intake. Some had even stopped taking prescriptions that cause frequent urination, like blood pressure medication.

“They are afraid that they’ll have to go to the bathroom more and they’ll have accidents, and that’s very embarrassing for them,” the employee said.