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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Amid sustained lockdowns and deteriorating conditions, prisoners and guards are reaching a breaking point; a new study shows decarceration is slowing amid increasing outbreaks in detention facilities; and HuffPost interviews a Rikers Island whistleblower.

Illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

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 update.

Conditions at Ware State Prison in Waycross, Georgia, aren’t much different than those at hundreds of prisons and jails throughout the U.S. But over the weekend, men incarcerated there reached a crossroads. According to media reports, several men took advantage of broken door locks and then used a guard’s keys to unlock other parts of the prison.

A statement from the Georgia Department of Corrections said two guards sustained “minor non life-threatening injuries, and three inmates received non life-threatening injuries. … A golf cart was set on fire and several windows were broken, but no major damage to the facility has been reported.”  

The statement, released Sunday morning, goes on to say that the cause of the disturbance was unknown. At least two guards have quit in protest.

Yesterday, an Atlanta news station showed footage from a cellphone video apparently filmed inside the prison. In it, a prisoner demonstrates how water had been cut off to cells—sinks don’t turn on, toilets don’t flush. He holds up what appears to be a sandwich with moldy bread in a plastic baggie 

“They have cut the power off, they have cut everything off,” he says. “Reason why we riot is because of health issues.”

In jails and prisons throughout the country, incarcerated people have described poor conditions that have only been made worse by the pandemic: lockdowns that verge on solitary confinement, rotting food, limited (or no) access to commissary items like soap and shampoo. Most facilities have banned visits since mid-March and have limited phone time.

In Texas, where temperatures have hit above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and many detention facilities lack air conditioning, “the pain and fear of battling COVID-19 is being exacerbated by inescapable heat,” The Dallas Morning News reported recently. 

And St. Louis’s KTVI news reported Monday that staff and people incarcerated in Missouri prisons are “reaching breaking points.” On July 28, at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, “…residents of a housing wing staged a protest and attempted to create a barrier, preventing additional staff from responding.” The protest followed an earlier one in the state, at a prison in Bonne Terre. A representative from the Missouri Corrections Officers Association said staffing levels were strained, a concern that’s been raised by prison guard unions throughout the U.S. 

Despite the unrest, a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative shows little sustained effort by state and local governments to free more people from custody, which would allow for social distancing and reduce stress on staff. In many county jails, the report notes, the prisoner populations are actually climbing.

More than 70 percent of the 668 jails tracked for the study saw population increases between May 1 and July 22, “and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22nd than they did in March,” the report says. “This trend is particularly alarming since we know it’s possible to further reduce these populations.”

Population reductions in state prisons have also lagged, the report found, with an average decrease of only about 13 percent compared to January population reports. 

“For the most part, states are not even taking the simplest and least controversial steps,” the report says, “like refusing admissions for technical violations of probation and parole rules, or releasing people that are already in confinement for those same technical violations.”

In May Patricia Kim, a discharge planning social worker at Rikers Island, submitted an affidavit to New York’s Legal Aid Society, which has incorporated claims from the affidavit to support bail applications for their clients. Kim spoke with HuffPost’s Jessica Schulberg

In the affidavit, Kim wrote that the jail was “failing to implement effective, basic, common-sense preventative measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19 to its medically vulnerable detainees.”

Schulberg asked Kim whether anything had changed since she blew the whistle on the jail. Kim said it looked cleaner, due to more mopping and new paint. “Otherwise, everything else is the same,” she said. She told Schulberg she didn’t trust jail officials to notify her if someone she came into contact with tested positive for COVID-19, calling the lack of transparency “actually quite frightening.”

* On July 30, Lauri and Wayne Rogers, whom friends and family described as “inseparable,” died within an hour of each other from COVID-19. Wayne was a corrections officer at Graceville Work Camp in Florida, where more than 650 incarcerated people and 33 staff have tested positive for the virus, according to the Florida Department of Corrections patient tracker. Rogers is the second Florida correctional officer to die from COVID-19.

* In Iowa, advocates for folks in state prisons are hoping to convince lawmakers to allow the compassionate release of prisoners with underlying medical conditions. According to a 2018 report by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Iowa—where prisons are, on average, 8 percent over capacity—is the only state that does not grant compassionate release. (Today, Iowa’s governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order, which will restore voting rights to many Iowans with felony convictions.)

* Adnan Khan, executive director of Re:Store Justice who spent four years at San Quentin, wrote an op-ed, published at The Appeal, about the recent death of a close friend at the prison from COVID-19. “Sadly, most people won’t care about my friend’s passing,” he writes. “His incarceration gave the state legitimacy to deny him his humanity. As a society, we accept punishment and torture as the only exchange for breaking a law, not redemption.”