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 Monday’s post.
A 2014 report by the Little Hoover Commission, described California’s prison system as “a slow-motion disaster.” The report from the independent oversight agency—charged with investigating the state’s government—warned of dire consequences if lawmakers didn’t take steps to overhaul the complex web of sentencing laws that fomented prison overcrowding and shifted resources away from rehabilitation.
In the report, the commission describes California’s prison system as “one of the most vexing problems” it has ever reviewed.
“When it comes to criminal justice sentencing,” the report says, “California has ignored the science.”
In a July 28 blog post, the commission reminded lawmakers that recommendations in the 2014 report, and similar earlier reports, were ignored: “California’s overcrowded prisons have become a breeding ground for the coronavirus.”
According to a tracker maintained by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), nearly 8,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons—and more than 1,700 CDCR employees—have been infected by the novel coronavirus. Forty-seven prisoners have died. Botched prisoner transfers meant to relieve overcrowding after an outbreak at the California Institution for Men instead resulted in outbreaks at San Quentin and at the California Correctional Center, where the state trains its inmate fire crews.
In March, the CDCR released 3,500 people who had 60 days or less on their sentences. Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to release another 8,000 people.
That’s not enough, the Little Hoover Commission warns in its blog post: “Despite these releases, the state’s prisons remain overcrowded and operating at 124 percent of capacity, as of June 30 — that’s the average.”
The commission’s 2014 report urged lawmakers to create a Criminal Justice Information Center to collect data on sentencing and use that information to guide prison reform. The next step would be the creation of an independent sentencing commission, “recommended by this Commission twice before and by many others,” the blog post says.
The 2014 report also urged the state to partner with community-based organizations with successful prisoner re-entry programs. It highlighted Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles nonprofit that provides job training and wraparound support services; over a four-year period, only one-third of program participants ended up back in prison. By comparison, “felons released directly from state prisons experienced a three-year recidivism rate of 63.7 percent.”
The annual per person cost of the Homeboy Industries program was almost half the cost of prison, the 2014 report notes.
The blog post urges California officials to take another look at the report’s recommendations.
“And in light of the tough budget challenges now facing the state and counties, partnerships with community-based organizations could provide a cost-effective way to leverage limited resources and help this vulnerable population reintegrate back into society.”
On Monday, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the ACLU filed a motion asking a federal judge to compel the Clayton County (Georgia) Sheriff’s Office to work with public health officials to develop a plan to address a COVID-19 outbreak at its jail.
“There is an escalating outbreak of COVID-19 at the Clayton County Jail, which Sheriff Victor Hill refers to as the ‘toughest para-military jail in Georgia,’” Southern Center’s Hannah Riley tweeted July 28. “The declarations we’ve received from current and former detainees at the jail are keep-you-up-at-night horrifying.”
The declarations, which Riley details in a Twitter thread, include a 72-year-old man who had to “barter soup packets in exchange for a ‘mask’ made of underwear” and a woman whose cellmate began coughing up blood.
News outlets and researchers have been tracking new cases of COVID-19, mostly in prisons, because many jails don’t regularly make testing data public, if at all. To get a handle on the threat the virus continues to pose to incarcerated people we culled news reports, social media and press releases to map out locations of prisons and jails reporting at least two new cases of COVID-19 between Sunday, July 26, and Wednesday, July 29: