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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

There are nearly 1,000 new cases at Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution in Texas, the Cook County Jail gets praise for its COVID-19 response, and California’s jail oversight board announces plans to collect and publish county-level data.

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. 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 updates from Tuesday and Wednesday.

Federal prisons have seen some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S., with more than 8,717 people in its facilities testing positive for the virus. This week, testing revealed 949 positive cases at the Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution in Dallas County, Texas, putting the facility at the top of the list for active COVID-19 cases and second to the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio, which, at one point, reported 973 cases. According to the most recent data from the  Bureau of Prisons (BOP), 358 people in Elkton have active COVID-19.

According to a petition and social media posts, Seagoville is on lockdown and prisoners have limited access to meals, cleaning products and hygiene items—the air conditioning has also been shut off. 

“They were trying to keep the virus out and they did, up until this past month,” the petition says. 

As we’ve reported, the majority of COVID-19 outbreaks in federal prisons are at low-security facilities. And while more than three-dozen federal prisons are reporting no cases, BOP has tested just a fraction of prisoners: 29,896 completed tests for the nearly 150,000 people in federal custody with an average positive rate of nearly 30 percent.

Chicago’s Cook County Jail was one of the first detention facilities in the U.S. to experience an outbreak of COVID-19. The jail reported its first case on March 18. By April 30, 628 incarcerated people and more than 279 correctional officers had fallen ill. 

But by the end of May, jail officials believed they’d gotten a handle on the virus. Then, in early June, the jail restarted in-person visits.

A new paper from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looks at how the jail contained the outbreak. Measures included intake screening and testing, medical isolation of people showing symptoms, social distancing (aided by opening up unused parts of the jail), cohorting of staff and, eventually, requiring everyone in the jail to wear a mask. 

“Effective response to the COVID-19 outbreak at [Cook County Jail] demonstrates the need for dynamic and aggressive application of intervention strategies, but also shows how timely response can reduce case counts and prevent morbidity and mortality in correctional or detention facilities,” the paper’s authors conclude.

The Chicago Tribune noted that the study wasn’t peer-reviewed and that many of the interventions that brought the virus under control at the jail came from the outside—for instance, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys worked to release people on bond. The paper doesn’t mention that a federal judge ordered the jail to increase testing and facilitate social distancing after attorneys from the law firm Loevy and Loevy and the MacArthur Justice Center filed a lawsuit. 

The paper does note that it appears jail staff brought the virus into the facility—“cases among staff often preceded cases in detained persons”—underscoring the importance of employee testing, mandatory reporting of positive test results, “and non-punitive leave policies to allow sick employees to stay home.”

The Tribune says Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart wants to keep the jail’s population low “and warned the progress could be reversed if the population increases much more.” 

In California, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) employs inspectors who make biannual visits to county jails, and the board meets regularly to review jail policies and standards. The BSCC also collects and publishes copious amounts of data collected from local law enforcement agencies. So, it came as a surprise when BSCC officials told Sacramento Bee reporter Jason Pohl that they had no plans to collect data on COVID-19 in California jails. 

County-specific data on COVID-19 infections and testing in jails ranges from thorough (Los Angeles, for example, regularly publishes updates), to nonexistent. Pohl had to wait 10 days to get information from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which faced scrutiny after deputies refused to wear masks and quarantined prisoners were denied showers. 

Yesterday, Pohl reported that the BSCC had changed its position. In a July 15 letter to sheriffs, BSCC Chair Linda Penner asks that each Sheriff’s and Probation Department provide BSCC with facility-level COVID-19 data by July 20. BSCC set July 31 as a target date for publishing a COVID-19 dashboard.  

Imperial County, California, located just east of San Diego, has been hard hit recently by a spike in COVID-19 cases. Now it appears the virus has made its way inside one of the county’s state prisons. The L.A. Times reported Wednesday that 18 people at Calipatria State Prison have tested positive for COVID-19 (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s patient tracker is reporting only 16 cases). 

The prison is currently at 132 percent capacity, according to CDCR’s most recent population report.

Imperial County is also home to Centinela State Prison, which currently has 18 active cases, 11 of them diagnosed in the last two weeks. That prison is at 142 percent capacity.

About 40 people incarcerated at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a report today from KTVU. Reporter Lisa Fernandez says that the data comes from an attorney who sued the Alameda County Sheriff in 2018 and learned of the infections from county counsel. Fernadez noted, however, that “the jail’s website did not accurately reflect that number, showing only six positive cases.”