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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A new research project aims to better understand how COVID-19 spreads through jails, the virus continues to sweep through California’s death row, and federal prison employees are suing for hazard pay.

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 Friday’s post.

John Eason, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded the school’s Justice Lab, which aims to reduce “racial, economic, and health disparities by critically examining the causes of spatial inequality.” Eason is now undertaking a project to understand how COVID-19 behaves in confined spaces. Wisconsin’s Dane County, which includes Madison, is perhaps the best site for Eason’s research—it shows the devastating entanglements of today’s crises.

For instance, Black people constitute nearly half of Dane County’s jail population, even though they make up 7 percent of the population, and COVID-19 is particularly virulent in correctional settings. Eason’s research in Dane County, then, is a matter of life or death. 

So far, Eason has found that by reducing the jail population from more than 600 people to fewer than 400, the Dane County Sheriff’s Department was able to significantly reduce the number of coronavirus cases. The jail had 52 cases at the end of May, but, Eason found, the case count would have been at least 90 if the jail hadn’t released more than 200 people. 

“They want me to do more forecasting and they’re going to provide more detailed data,” he said of the department. “And so I’m talking with colleagues on campus—epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists.” 

After hearing Eason’s findings, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney, who is also the president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, committed to trying to keep the population of his jail low and allow it to be a test case for Eason’s ongoing research. Eason is partnering with other researchers at UW-Madison to do what’s known as “agent-based modeling,” which looks at how individuals interact within a system: It’s used to identify the dynamics of disease transmission, usually in school settings. Eason and his team are modifying their research approach to take into account the unique features of a jail setting.

“Sheriff Mahoney wants this to be sort of a national test case,” Eason said. “He wants the research produced here to have legs, so he’s advocating to expand the research to other locales that are open to this. 

“We don’t want it to be like a one-and-done thing,” Eason added. “What I want to be able to do is to say, ‘Here are the policies that were enacted locally in Dane County to mitigate COVID. And here are the practices that the sheriff undertook within his facility to minimize the number of cases.’”

Eason, whose work includes looking at the effects of large prisons on rural communities, said he’s aiming to release the results of his research quarterly. 

* In March 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty (and invited the media to watch as corrections staff dismantled death chambers). “Now the virus has picked up where the state left off,” write San Francisco Chronicle reporters Jason Fagone and Megan Cassidy, “sweeping through Death Row and taking the lives of more condemned men than California has executed in a quarter of a century.” Since June 24, following an outbreak of COVID-19 in San Quentin, a dozen death row prisoners have died from the virus.

* Last week, we linked to another story from California. The San Jose Mercury News reported on Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, a guard at San Quentin, who had contracted COVID-19. Polanco had been working at the prison for more than three decades and was one year from retirement. On Sunday, his family told reporters that Polanco died early that morning. He seemed to be making progress, his daughter told the newspaper, then “his heart just stopped.” 

* The Texas Tribune takes a look at the only prison in the state that’s had no coronavirus cases. And it’s not because it has its own soap factory. 

* Last week, six people incarcerated in Century Correctional Institution, a state prison in northwest Florida, tested positive for COVID-19. By Sunday, 595 prisoners had tested positive and another 371 were waiting for their test results.

* NPR reports on a lawsuit filed recently by a group of federal employees, including several who work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The lawsuit argues that, as essential workers, they should receive hazard pay. The story quotes Kareen “Troy” Troitino, a correctional officer at FCI Miami, where more than 100 prisoners and 30 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. “On the week of the Fourth of July, we had one case, and then it just spread in one week,” Troitino said. “It’s like wildfire. And you don’t even see the fire because you don’t know who has it until it’s too late.” According to the BOP, 580 staff members currently have an active infection and 763 have recovered. 

* More than three-quarters of people incarcerated at FCI Seagoville, a low-security federal prison outside Dallas, Texas, have tested positive for COVID-19—more than at any other federal prison. CNN talked to several men being held in Seagoville who described crowded conditions and a four-day wait for test results, leading to prisoners unknowingly infecting others.