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 Wednesday and Thursday.
A new analysis by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press finds that between March and June, federal and state prison populations dropped by 100,000, or 8 percent.
But despite dozens of lawsuits filed on behalf of elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners, the decline is largely due to prisons putting a halt on jail transfers.
“So the number could rise again once those wheels begin moving despite the virus,” the July 16 story says.
The analysis found that Rhode Island’s prison population decreased the most: prisons in the smallest U.S. state now hold one-third fewer people than they did in February. Virginia’s prison population shrunk by nearly 30,000 people, which might seem significant, but represents only 2 percent of its pre-COVID-19 population. In fact, the five states that have seen the most COVID-19 cases released a single-digit percentage of people:
Compared to prisons, it’s been easier for jails to reduce the number of incarcerated people in their custody, since the majority of people in county jails at any given time haven’t been sentenced. An article in this week’s Santa Barbara Independent asks whether COVID-19 could “permanently cure” overcrowding at the Santa Barbara jail.
Since mid-March, the jail’s average daily population has shrunk from between 900 and 950 people to 550 to 600 people, ”the lowest it’s been in decades.”
The Sheriff’s Department attributed the drop to law enforcement writing citations instead of booking people into jail, efforts by the District Attorney and Public Defender to release people awaiting trial and efforts to divert people into mental-health crisis programs and sobering centers instead of jail.
In December 2017, Disability Rights California and the Prison Law Office filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of jail detainees against the county over a lack of access to basic mental health and medical care, overreliance on solitary confinement for mentally ill detainees and what the complaint described as “inhumane, unsanitary, and unsafe living conditions.”
The litigation is ongoing. In a June 19 letter from Disability Rights attorney Aaron Fischer to county leaders, Fischer praised the sheriff’s department for its “meaningful efforts to prevent Santa Barbara County Jail from becoming a new epicenter of coronavirus transmission.” Yet, the letter urged the department to consider reducing the population further by identifying, and releasing, people at heightened risk of dying from COVID-19.
Many sheriff’s departments applied for grants under the CARES Act. Sheriffs have spent the federal funds on: security cameras, payroll, cell door locks. But in Monroe County, Indiana, Sheriff Brad Swain is spending his department’s $58,000 grant on high-tech tools to keep COVID-19 out of his jails.
A story by Indiana Public Media says Swain has ordered an HVAC system for the jail that uses ionization to kill COVID-19 and other viruses. He’s also ordered portable ultraviolet-light units to sterilize cell blocks and multipurpose rooms.
Swain said he’d also made the jail safer by releasing nearly 100 people charged with low-level offenses to allow for social distancing.
Prisoners and correctional officers are joining forces to pressure the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to take action to slow the spread of COVID-19 in two facilities in Florida: the Miami Federal Correctional Institution, where 93 prisoners and 10 staff recently tested positive, and the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumterville, where 165 prisoners and 51 staff have tested positive, according to the BOP’s COVID-19 information page.
Union officials told ABC News that BOP won’t allow testing of asymptomatic prisoners, and staff who’ve been exposed to people with COVID-19 are required to report to work while awaiting test results.
“The public needs to understand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons, for many years, has had many deficiencies that have been ignored because nobody really cares about inmates. However, these are people’s families,” FCI Miami corrections officer union president Kareen Troitino told ABC.
Yesterday afternoon, Adnan Khan, executive director of the advocacy organization Re:Store Justice, posted footage taken via cell phone of correctional officers in an unidentified California prison not wearing masks.
“Note: This is not San Quentin but makes me wonder if this is the ‘next’ one,” he wrote in a tweet.
According to recent data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), 6,795 people in California prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and 39 have died. San Quentin has the largest number of active infections (1,118).
In a Zoom chat this afternoon between Sam Lewis, executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and CDCR secretary Ralph Diaz, Lewis brought up reports that corrections officers weren’t wearing masks.
Lewis said his organization has been hearing from incarcerated people who were especially worried about the officers’ lack of protective gear during cell checks. “When you search my cell, can you please have a fresh pair of gloves on and a mask, because I want to be safe,” Lewis said, paraphrasing what prisoners say they’re telling guards.
Diaz said he’s responsible for CDCR messaging—and has repeatedly sent out memos about masks—“but the enforcement has to come at the institutional level.” He told Lewis he’d pass along prisoners’ concerns.
“I would be concerned also if I were incarcerated and someone came into my cell … who wasn’t respecting the precautions,” Diaz said, adding, “There’s not a warden out there who does not care about the mitigation of [coronavirus].”
Among state prison systems, Ohio prisons are second only to Texas in the number of deaths from COVID-19, but officials are moving ahead with plans to restart in-person prison visits in counties where COVID cases remain low.
A report by Cleveland’s 19News quotes William Anderson, a cab driver who runs a business called Jailbird Express that shuttles families to Ohio prisons. Anderson said that even with visits halted, COVID still got into prisons so the prisons might as well allow people to see their families.
“Let’s get the show on the road. These inmates need their families now more than they ever had before,” he said.