Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons
COVID-19 tears through a Texas prison for medically fragile women; California prisons are flattening the curve on new diagnoses, but deaths continue to climb; and the ACLU finds jails releases haven’t led to an increase in crime.
Kelly Davis Jul 27, 2020
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 recent posts.
At FMC Carswell federal prison in Fort Worth women sleep four to a room and the rooms have no doors. As COVID-19 tore through the Texas prison—cases grew from 50 on July 7 to 571 by July 23—staff shut off the air conditioning and hung plastic curtains in the doorways to stop the virus’ spread.
“The heat is about to get the best of us,” a woman incarcerated at Carswell wrote in an email shared with The Appeal.
Caroline Trude-Rede spent six months at Carswell in 2018; she’s written about her experience in her blog, Life After Prison. Since Trude-Rede’s release, she’s kept in touch with women she befriended there. Since early July, she’s watched COVID-19 cases climb, and messages from friends become more dire.
There’s no air conditioning; incarcerated women are confined to their cells; the commissary is closed indefinitely, so women were running out of basic hygiene products, like soap and shampoo; the warden was nowhere to be found; women weren’t getting necessary medical care; inedible meals arrived in brown sacks.
“For the last two days, the meat they have given us is bad, spoiled,” a friend wrote Trude-Rede last week.
It’s impossible to socially distance at Carswell, Trude-Rede told The Appeal. “You literally live on top of your bunkmate.” Before COVID-10, women were allowed outdoor rec time, but the doors have since been bolted shut, Trude-Rede’s friends told her.
Carswell made news early in the pandemic, after the death of Andrea Circle Bear. The 30-year-old was eight and a half months into a high-risk pregnancy when she was transferred from a South Dakota jail to FMC Carswell in late March. FMC stands for “Federal Medical Center” and most women incarcerated there have a medical condition that requires ongoing treatment.
Circle Bear became ill shortly after her arrival. She was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator on April 1, the same day her baby was delivered via cesarean section. She died four weeks later.
Circle Bear’s roommate also tested positive, but until July, there were no other cases at Carswell.
It’s unclear how the virus got into the facility this time. Visits and transfers have stopped. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reports that three Carswell staff tested positive for the virus.
On July 10, when there were just over 90 active cases at Carswell, attorney Jeremy Warren asked a federal judge to grant compassionate release to his client, Erica Lynch. Lynch has a rare blood disorder that causes excessive bleeding; COVID-19 can attack the vascular system, making Lynch especially vulnerable to its life-threatening complications.
Protocol required Lynch to first ask Carswell’s warden for compassionate release. She did that on June 17. Her request was denied the following day with no explanation.
Lynch is scheduled to be released in March 2021. Like Circle Bear, she was pregnant when she was sent to Carswell. After she gave birth to her daughter—who’s now living with Lynch’s parents—she enrolled in a drug treatment program that allowed her to earn sentence credits. But the program was halted when COVID-19 shut down prison programming.
“But for the pandemic, she would likely already be in a halfway house or home confinement with a well-earned sentencing reduction, or close to it,” Warren wrote in his July 10 motion.
Warren asked the court to allow Lynch to serve out her sentence on home confinement. An aunt and uncle in Florida agreed to take her in; her uncle runs a prisoner reentry program. Lynch’s parents, who are taking care of her daughter, plan to move to Florida.
As COVID-19 cases mounted at Carswell—including Reality Winner, a former intelligence specialist imprisoned for leaking materials from the National Security Agency—Warren pushed hard to get a hearing scheduled. It took more than two weeks, but today at noon he got good news, writing in an email to The Appeal that: “SHE’S GETTING OUT!!!!”
A new report by the ACLU finds that cities and counties that reduced their jail populations to allow for social distancing haven’t seen an increase in crime. In fact, most cities saw a drop in crime. The report looked at 29 localities, all of them large metropolitan areas.
“…[I]n nearly every city explored,” the report says, “fewer crimes occurred between March and May in 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019, regardless of the magnitude of the difference in jail population.”
Brooke Madubuonwu, one of the report’s co-authors, told The Appeal that it’s difficult to determine if the decline is due to more people spending time at home. The goal of the report, she said, was to answer one question: “whether the amount of decarceration in a city was correlated with year-over-year crime trends.”
“We found it wasn’t,” Madubuonwu said, “and it also happened to be the case that crime dropped — sometimes dramatically — in nearly every city that decarcerated.”
Active cases of COVID-19 in California prisons are leveling off, but deaths continue. On July 24, a person who’d been incarcerated at Avenal State Prison and a person from San Quentin died from complications related to the virus, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported. Another person from San Quentin died July 25. This brings the total number of deaths in California prisons to 47, according to CDCR’s patient tracker.
Today, University of San Francisco law professor Laura Bazelon wrote in Slate that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra “has continued to fight to cement” the convictions of people on Death Row as COVID-19 has killed ten people on the row.
The Ventura County Star reports that at least 21 teenagers at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo, California, have tested positive for COVID-19. The facility is run by the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to close the state’s youth prisons and “end the juvenile justice system as we know it.” The Legislature needs to approve the plan.
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