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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Geriatic prison with the most deaths in Texas has a years-long history of neglect, Kentucky corrections officials won’t say how many people they’ve tested for COVID-19, and an outbreak at a remote Oregon prison grows from 20 to 120 cases in less than a week, all as Gov. Kate Brown has refused calls to decarcerate the state’s prison system.

Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Geriatic prison with the most deaths in Texas has a years-long history of neglect, Kentucky corrections officials won’t say how many people they’ve tested for COVID-19, and an outbreak at a remote Oregon prison grows from 20 to 120 cases in less than a week, all as Gov. Kate Brown has refused calls to decarcerate the state’s prison system.


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.


If you created a Venn diagram with one circle representing prisoners and another representing elderly people the center would be the Wallace Pack Unit. The geriatric prison in Navasota, Texas, has seen more COVID-19 related deaths—19—than any other state-run lockup.  

In March, prior to any of those deaths, two men incarcerated at the Pack Unit filed a lawsuit alleging the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) wasn’t doing enough to protect them from COVID-19.

Federal Court Judge Keith P. Ellison quickly granted an emergency injunction, ordering TDCJ to take certain measures to combat the spread of the virus—provide hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, ensure social distancing and conduct contract tracing. But, less than a week later, an appeals court halted the ruling, finding that Ellison had exceeded his authority and “federal judges should not micromanage state prison systems.”

The prisoners took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the appeals court, though Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement alongside the ruling.

“It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons,” she wrote.

Now the case is back in front of Ellison for a two-week bench trial in Houston. 

Ellison is all too familiar with the Pack Unit’s troubled history. He presided over a 2014 lawsuit that alleged temperatures inside the prison, which is located 70 miles northwest of Houston, regularly exceeded 100 degrees, resulting in at least 20 heat-related deaths since 1998, 10 in 2011 alone. The lawsuit made a modest demand: that the temperature inside the prison shouldn’t exceed 88°F.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, an incarcerated person at Pack Unit, who’d been advised to drink plenty of water to combat the heat, fell ill. A nurse pulled him aside and suggested he only drink bottled water from the commissary. The prisoner, Craig Converse, later did some digging and found years of water quality reports showing the Pack Unit water supply was full of arsenic from agricultural runoff. 

Converse’s findings became part of the excessive heat lawsuit. In June 2016, Ellison gave TDCJ 15 days to replace the prison’s water supply, ruling that forcing people to drink contaminated water “violates contemporary standards of decency.” He later presided over a settlement requiring TDCJ to install air conditioning at the Pack Unit as well as make 32,000 beds available for prisoners whose medical conditions are exacerbated by extreme heat.

Last year, TDCJ officials were back in Ellison’s courtroom, where he found that they’d ignored settlement terms. Ellison threatened to hold them in contempt unless they addressed “grotesque” living conditions at the overheated prisons. 

In testimony Monday in the COVID-19 case, Ellison heard prisoners describe what the Houston Chronicle reporter Gabrielle Banks described as “callous disregard by the Texas prison system.”

Lawyers for the prisoners said Pack Unit hasn’t provided hand sanitizer, sufficient testing, contact tracing or ensured there was enough space for social distancing—all things Ellison had ordered on April 16 that prison officials insisted they were doing.  

“The Pack Unit was like a tinderbox where the COVID-19 virus would spread rapidly if immediate action was not taken,” said attorney John Keville, who described the first prisoner death on April 11 as “like a spark” that resulted “in a raging fire.”

Prison officials insisted during the hearing that they were following CDC guidelines, but COVID-19 was “a lethal viral killer where no person and no place is immune.” Under questioning from Ellison, however, they admitted that they’d failed to track staff who’d come into contact with infected prisoners. 

Laddy Valentine, one of the two men who filed the original complaint, told Ellison that after he tested positive for COVID-19, he remained in his dorm, sleeping inches from fellow prisoners. No one asked him to fill out a contact tracing form, he said. 


Louisville, Kentucky’s WHAS11 spoke to Tracey Cox VanDyke whose 27-year-old daughter is incarcerated at the Kentucky Correctional Center for Women. Her daughter has thyroid disease and was showing symptoms of COVID-19 long before she was tested. 

“She says mom I wake up to my nose bleeding profusely, vomiting, coming through her nose and mouth,” VanDyke told the news station, which reports that Kentucky state prisons have lagged on testing. Among 11,200 people in state custody, only 2,632 COVID-19 tests have been administered. But the number of prisoners tested is likely lower, since a person who tests positive will be tested at least one more time.

WHAS11 reports that they’ve repeatedly asked the Kentucky Department of Corrections how many people they’ve tested and haven’t received  a response.


Last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported that more than 3,100 people incarcerated at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Eastern Oregon were quarantined after a COVID-19 outbreak at the prison. At that point, 20 people had tested positive.

Yesterday, OPB’s Conrad Wilson reported that at least 120 prisoners and 21 staff have become infected with the virus. But only 339 prisoners have been tested, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC).

A spokesperson for the DOC told Wilson that “employees are working around the clock to provide appropriate healthcare.” 

We’ve previously reported on Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s reticence to release people from custody despite pressure from state legislators and other officials. In April, the Oregon Department of Corrections told Brown she needed to reduce the state’s prison population by about 5,800 people.  Last month state legislators devised a multi-step “decompression” plan for releasing nearly 2,000 people from state prisons. 

On June 25, Brown agreed to commute the sentences of just 57 people.


The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced today that to curb the spread of COVID-19 at San Quentin, it was suspending recreational yard time and phone calls. The announcement said prisoners will be given three stamped envelopes per week (anyone identified as indigent will get five) to help them maintain contact with loved ones.

CDCR acknowledged it was a difficult decision, made after consultation with the California Department of Public Health. “These actions are not taken lightly,” the department said in a statement, “but are being done to stop the spread so that we can protect all those who live and work at San Quentin and safely return to normal operations as quickly as possible.”

More than 2,000 people housed at San Quentin have tested positive for COVID-19 and 10 have died following a botched transfer from a Southern California prison.