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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Newspaper fearmongers around releasing people from prison due to COVID-19, oversight agency urges state DOC to ease restrictions on people in prison who have faced months of lockdown due to pandemic, sheriff orders staff not to wear masks.

Photo 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 headline in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times first read: “California is Releasing Some Murderers Due to COVID-19. Some say it should free more.”

The headline was later toned down—“Amid COVID-19, California releases some inmates doing time for murder. Advocates push to free more”—but not before conservative media outlets and law-enforcement publications pounced. In response to the article, Tarrant County, Texas, Sheriff Bill Waybourn told the Daily Caller that California leaders were releasing dangerous criminals because they “want to create more chaos in the country.”

But the L.A. Times story actually mentions only one person: Terebea Williams, who was released last month due to medical conditions that put her at risk of complications from COVID-19. In 1998, Williams, then 22, shot her boyfriend, Kevin “John” Ruska Jr., in the stomach, put him in the trunk of his car, and drove 750 miles to a Northern California motel where she tied him to a chair and left him. He died of an infection to the gunshot wound. 

At trial, Williams testified that she killed Ruska in self-defense after he’d threatened and stalked her. Nevertheless, she was sentenced to 84 years to life.

Williams had served 19 years when she was released. The L.A. Times story notes that while she was in prison, Williams earned a college degree and mentored younger women. Prison administrators said she exhibited “exceptional conduct.” 

Marc Levin, founder of Right on Crime, a conservative group that advocates for shrinking prison and jail populations through evidence-based reforms, said fear mongering over releases in response to COVID-19 has no basis in reality.

“There’s research showing that crime has continued to decline in the aggregate,” he said. “There’s been a spike in murders and shootings in some big cities, but that hasn’t been linked to people coming out of prison.”

Levin said there needs to be a balanced approach that shows empathy to victims—Ruska’s family strongly opposed Williams’s release—but also acknowledges that people who commit crimes aren’t criminals forever. 

“Parole consideration should be forward-looking, based on the risk to public safety, taking into account what programs somebody completed in prison,” he said. “And then, obviously, factors that assess to what degree do they still have antisocial attitudes, criminogenic attitudes, and so forth.”

In a piece published earlier this week on the website Boom California, law professor Hadar Aviram writes that researchers, particularly in California—which was forced by a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision to shrink its prison population—have found no correlation between the crime a person is imprisoned for and future risk to public safety.

A recent report from Washington state’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds, an independent oversight agency, urges the Department of Corrections (DOC) to ease restrictions on people in state prisons who’ve faced months of lockdown due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The report makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • An assessment of each prison to determine whether more people should be released to allow for adequate social distancing.
  • Restarting visits, which had been canceled to prevent transmission of the virus, “due to the emotional benefit this could have for inmates. The report suggests allowing outdoor visitation.
  • Testing of staff when there’s an increase in community infections near a prison to prevent staff from bringing COVID-19 into a facility.
  • Allowing prisoners to shower at least every other day; currently, showers are limited to once a week.
  • More rigorous testing protocols, including on-site rapid diagnostic testing.

* Earlier this week, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods sent an email to his employees ordering them not to wear masks. “I can already hear the whining,” Woods wrote in the email, adding that there’s no clear evidence that masks prevent the spread of coronavirus. He made some exceptions, including for deputies who work in the Marion County Jail, though if a deputy needs to give an order, “the mask will be immediately removed,” the Ocala Star-Banner reports. Forty-three sheriff’s office employees and more than 200 people incarcerated at the jail have tested positive for coronavirus. On Monday, the Star-Banner reported that a nurse who worked at the jail, Charles “Dan” Manrique, died Aug. 8 from coronavirus-related complications. 

* Staff at Oahu Community Correctional Center told the Honolulu Civil Beat that a recent outbreak in the jail resulted from protocols not being followed. Prisoners who should be quarantined are being placed in the general population, there’s no hand sanitizer in the facility, and masks distributed to staff are “flimsy.” According to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, 16 people at the correctional center have tested positive for COVID-19 and 295 are in quarantine. 

To help visualize the ongoing threat COVID-19 poses for incarcerated people, we’ve been 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. This is the third week we’re running the map and, sadly, many of the facilities represented by red dots—the first markers on the map, representing new cases between July 26 and 29—continue to report more infections. The blue dots represent new cases from July 30 through Aug. 2, and the yellow dots represent cases reported from Aug. 3 through 9. In the future, we will update this map based on data from seven-day periods.