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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Attorneys file a class-action lawsuit over the outbreak at a California forensic psychiatric hospital, cases increase among Vermont prisoners sent to Mississippi, plus a map of new cases.

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 posts from Monday and Wednesday.

A class-action lawsuit filed on Wednesday against the California Department of State Hospitals (DSH) alleges that officials haven’t done enough to protect patients at Patton State Hospital, a forensic psychiatric hospital in San Bernardino, from contracting COVID-19.

As of Aug. 6, 122 patients and 121 staff members at Patton have been infected and two patients have died. It’s a significant increase from June 17, when The Appeal reported on an outbreak at the hospital. At that point, 63 patients and 20 staff members at the 1,527-bed facility had tested positive. At the state’s six other psychiatric hospitals, patients and staff members have tested positive according to a patient tracker DSH recently added to its website.

In April, representatives from the California Public Defenders Association, Disability Rights California, the ACLU of Northern California, and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice sent a letter to DSH officials asking them to compile a list of patients who could safely be released to family or to a less-crowded facility that would allow for social distancing. 

However, the lawsuit, which was filed by San Francisco law firm Covington & Burling and Disability Rights California, claims that DSH has “taken no meaningful steps” to place patients in safer settings. Instead, the lawsuit says, though the roughly 650 patients have been quarantined, they have limited or no access to recreation, group therapy, or some medical appointments. “Despite these measures, the numbers of people testing positive at DSH-Patton continue to rise,” the lawsuit says.

Social distancing is nearly impossible, the lawsuit says. Patients are spread among locked units where roughly 50 people share a bathroom, eating area, lounge area, and a few telephones.

“Patients report that, contrary to DSH protocols, Defendants do not routinely sanitize hightouch common surfaces, including tables, chairs, and telephones, between use by different patients,” the lawsuit says. “Staff rotate through the units constantly, and do not wear masks consistently when interacting with patients.”

The lawsuit describes several patients who’ve engaged in treatment at Patton and now require minimal psychiatric care. All of them have underlying health conditions and safer housing options. One patient, Graham Waldrop, sufferers from type 2 diabetes and respiratory problems. “He is constantly worried about his health and states that he is ‘afraid to die here,’” the lawsuit says.

“Mr. Waldrop has a supportive family, with whom he is in regular contact by phone, who can provide him housing and assist with his reentry and participate in ongoing treatment if he is released from DSH-Patton.”

Patton is one of the country’s largest forensic psychiatric hospitals. Most people confined there have been found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. The remainder are receiving inpatient treatment as a condition of parole or have been involuntarily hospitalized under California’s Lanterman-Petris-Short Act.

A DSH spokesperson said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but he outlined steps DSH has taken to keep patients safe such as implementing enhanced cleaning protocols, suspending visits except in special situations, screening employees for symptoms, and requiring them to wear masks. 

“DSH remains committed to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and working with local Public Health officials to protect our patients and employees,” he said.  

In many states, prisons have stopped accepting transfers from county jails to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For jails struggling to keep populations low—to allow for social distancing—this has posed a challenge. In Logan County, Illinois, Sheriff Mark Landers is suing the state’s department of corrections for refusing to accept transfers from his jail despite a court order, reports News Channel 20, an ABC affiliate. On Aug. 4, seven people were transferred to the Graham Correctional Center, an Illinois prison, without incident. But the prison turned away a second group of seven after two of them tested positive for COVID-19. In a press release, Landers alleged that the Graham Correctional Center initially refused to tell him which of the seven prisoners had tested positive and hasn’t told him what testing procedure was used. 

* Earlier this week, we wrote about 85 Vermont prisoners housed in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility who tested positive for COVID-19. (To prevent overcrowding in its own prisons, Vermont houses between 200 and 300 people out of state.) On Wednesday, the Vermont Department of Corrections reported that 147 of its 219 prisoners at Tallahatchie have tested positive. Sixty-two tested negative, eight refused to be tested, and results for two are pending. 

* A lawsuit filed recently by the Southern Center for Human Rights on behalf of people incarcerated in Georgia’s Clayton County jail alleges medically vulnerable prisoners are being forced to sleep on the floor, wait for medical attention in crowded cages, and denied COVID-19 tests, The Appeal’s Lauren Gill reports

To get a handle on the threat COVID-19 continues to pose for incarcerated people, we’re culling news reports, social media, and press releases to map out locations of prisons and jails that have reported at least two new cases of COVID-19. Red dots represent new cases between July 26 and 29. Blue dots represent new cases from July 30 through Aug. 2.