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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

New outbreaks continue to hit California prisons, advocates have harsh words for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and a longtime journalist weighs in on a sheriff’s decision to take a battle with the ACLU to the Supreme Court.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

New outbreaks continue to hit California prisons, advocates have harsh words for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and a longtime journalist weighs in on a sheriff’s decision to take a battle with the ACLU to the Supreme Court.


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.


Over the last few weeks, COVID-19 has returned—and spread—through the same California prisons that had been hit hard by the virus early.

Avenal State Prison, for instance, went from a high of 804 cases at the beginning to June to only 17 cases in early July. Then, in mid-July, cases started creeping back up. Currently, more than 300 people in the Central California prison are infected, down from 438 on July 31. 

The California Institution for Women reported 157 cases in late May and, by July 3, only two. But infections spiked again to a high of 164 on Aug. 4. 

Over the last two weeks, there have been new outbreaks in at least eight other California prisons. An initial two cases at Folsom State Prison at the end of July have now grown to 99. Folsom is California’s second oldest prison, behind San Quentin—where nearly 1,600 incarcerated people contracted COVID-19 following a transfer of prisoners from another facility. Folsom, like San Quentin, has multi-tier units with bars on the cells instead of solid doors, making it difficult for infected prisoners to quarantine. Moreover, Folsom is also nearly 21 percent over capacity, according to a recent population report.

Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, which is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) over prison conditions, described the outbreak at Folsom as “entirely predictable,” because it has the same architecture as San Quentin. 

“I really regret staff hadn’t taken steps to reduce the population in those units,” he said in a hearing before U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar this week.

A CDCR spokesperson told The Appeal that the department continues to implement “extraordinary measures” to address COVID-19 in its prisons. But court documents filed recently by the Prison Law Office argue that CDCR lacks an adequate, comprehensive plan to ensure staff members don’t bring COVID-19 into correctional facilities.

“There are critical gaps [in the plan] that need to be filled,” Prison Law Office attorney Sophie Hart said during the Wednesday hearing. According to Hart, staff aren’t ordered to get tested, aren’t required to quarantine if they show symptoms, and aren’t cohorted together— a guard can work on one yard and then cover a shift in another yard.

Prison Law Office attorneys also told the judge that CDCR has been slow to implement a new program that identifies and screens people with serious medical issues to determine if they’re eligible for release. More than 6,500 people could qualify for screening, but in the first 30 days of the program, only one person has been released.

Sharon Elder, who is incarcerated in the women’s section of Folsom, is hoping to be one of the people considered for release. Elder is 55 and has diabetes and high blood pressure, which puts her at risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Earlier this year, before the pandemic, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. 

Until recently, Elder worked for the California Prison Industry Authority—located across the street from Folsom—until three of its staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Elder didn’t come into contact with any of them, but other women in the prison did and are now quarantined.  

Compared to the men’s section of the prison, there aren’t many women incarcerated in Folsom. But, Elder told The Appeal, “It’s virtually impossible to do even six feet of [social distancing]. You’ve got to line up for meals, share bathrooms.” And the old building isn’t very sanitary, either. Elder, who also has asthma, described a thick dust that covered vents, light fixtures, and walls. 

“I do as much as I can” to clean surfaces, she said. “It’s dusty as hell.”

Elder is eligible for parole in August 2023. In 2016, she was sentenced to 11 years for theft and assault. A loss-prevention officer grabbed her as she left a store and she instinctively fought back, biting him on his ear. She insists that she didn’t break the skin. She’s been able to shave years off her sentence by participating in job training programs and taking classes. 

“Everyone here is eligible for release,” she said of the women at Folsom. Many, like Elder, have underlying medical conditions. Others have release dates within six months to a year. None would pose a public safety risk, she said.

“It’s like we’re just waiting to get out or die,” she said.


On Aug. 5, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced it was moving to “Phase 9” of its Coronavirus Action Plan, “which looks a lot like Phase Eight … which looked a lot like Phase Seven,” writes Walter Pavlo, co-founder of the consulting firm Prisonology, in Forbes. “It begs the question as to whether there is a cohesive plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic that has infected over 10,000 federal inmates and over 1,000 correctional staff … killed 110 inmates and one staff member.” 

Natalie Chwalisz, a research fellow at Medici Road, also had harsh words this week for the BOP. “The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) response has been disastrous and deadly,” Chwalisz wrote in a Washington Post op-ed

Both Pavlo and Chwalisz point to a recent report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General looking into the COVID-19 outbreak at FCI Lompoc, a federal prison in California where more than 1,000 incarcerated people were infected. The OIG report is scathing, outlining numerous failings by BOP officials. Lompoc was short-staffed and lacked a leadership team whose job would have been to formulate a response to the outbreak, the report says. The prison also lacked an initial screening process for COVID-19, meaning infected staff continued to show up to work. Most serious, though, is that Lompoc staff didn’t test or isolate the first person who reported COVID-19 symptoms. Nearly a week passed before the man was tested at a local hospital. 


In late May, a federal judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Southern California, ordering Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes to do a better job of protecting people in his jails from COVID-19. Barnes appealed the ruling, arguing that he was already following CDC guidelines. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Barnes. The Court didn’t explain its ruling, but in their dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor noted, “Dozens of inmate declarations told a different story.” “[I]nmates described being transported back and forth to the jail in crammed buses, socializing in dayrooms with no space to distance physically, lining up next to each other to wait for the phone, sleeping in bunk beds two to three feet apart, and even being ordered to stand closer than six feet apart when inmates tried to socially distance,” they wrote. 

Gustavo Arellano, features writer for the Los Angeles Times Metro desk, spoke with KCRW about the ruling and how Barnes’s push to take the case to the Supreme Court is part of a years long battle with the ACLU over jail conditions. (Before working for the Times, Arellano was the editor of the OC Weekly, which published years of tough, investigative reporting on Don Barnes and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.) “So something as simple as offering hand sanitizer or trying to make it safe for the prisoners — the Sheriff’s Department’s going to do the least amount of work possible,” Arellano said.