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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

California prison watchdog finds lapses in COVID-19 screening procedures, the ‘trailer jails’ that officials in one Missouri county praised as ‘innovative’ are the site of an outbreak, and the U.S. Marshals Service is blamed for spreading infections among federal detention facilities.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

California prison watchdog finds lapses in COVID-19 screening procedures, the ‘trailer jails’ that officials in one Missouri county praised as ‘innovative’ are the site of an outbreak, and the U.S. Marshals Service is blamed for spreading infections among federal detention facilities.


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 recent posts.


Earlier today, the watchdog agency overseeing California’s prison system released the first in a series of reports assessing how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has handled COVID-19.

Today’s report focuses on COVID-19 screening practices and concludes that CDCR failed to establish clear guidelines for screening staff and visitors. It describes screening directives as “vague,” leading to inconsistent practices systemwide. Even OIG staff, who toured prisons to gather information for the report, weren’t always screened.

“During multiple visits by our staff between May 19, 2020, and June 26, 2020, prisons did not screen some of them for the disease’s known signs and symptoms,” the report says.

That criticism echoes a recent court filing by the Prison Law Office, which has sued CDCR over prison conditions. Prison Law Office attorneys have argued that CDCR lacks an adequate, comprehensive testing plan to ensure staff don’t bring COVID-19 into correctional facilities.

The OIG reports—there will be at least three—were requested in April by the Speaker of the California Assembly, Anthony Rendon. Future reports will look at the availability of personal protective gear and how incarcerated people who contract COVID-19 are treated.

As of this afternoon, more than 9,500 people incarcerated in California prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and 54 have died. More than 2,000 CDCR staff members have tested positive and nine have died. 

Prison staff told OIG inspectors that they hadn’t been properly trained and had been given thermometers that didn’t work properly, including some “that lacked battery power.” 

The report recommends that CDCR better train its staff and also tighten up procedures to ensure no one enters a prison without first being screened. It also recommends that thermometers are regularly tested to make sure they’re functioning and that extra batteries “are always on hand.” 

In a letter to Rendon included with the report, Inspector General Roy W. Wesley writes that CDCR withheld information that Rendon had specifically requested to be reviewed, “which essentially limited our analysis for a portion of the report.” Under California law, Wesley writes, withholding such information from the OIG is a misdemeanor offense.

“In response to our draft report, the Secretary of [CDCR] informed us that ‘after further review and consideration, the decision has been made to release the information,’” at some point in the future, Wesley writes. “Nevertheless, the decision to initially withhold the information we requested remains a concern.”

Wesley does acknowledge the challenges that COVID-19 has posed for CDCR, particularly for staff and detainees. “I would be remiss if I failed to recognize the individual actions of countless staff and incarcerated persons who played roles in helping to control the spread of the disease,” he wrote. “Some of these individuals risked their own safety—and, by extension, the safety of their loved ones—to help those who became infected. Such heroic efforts must not be lost amid this discussion.”


Two weeks ago, the Greene County Jail in Springfield, Missouri, reported its first case of COVID-19. Since then, at least 83 incarcerated people and 29 staff members have tested positive. Springfield News-Leader reporter Katie Kull spoke to several detainees who told her that the outbreak started in one of the 52-foot semitrailers the jail uses to house people. 

For the last few years, the jail has used the trailers to alleviate overcrowding. In December 2018, the Springfield News-Leader took a close look at living conditions inside the units, which were designed by a company called All Detainment Solutions (whose URL is “overcrowdedjails.com”).

“Within the stainless steel walls, 108 men eat, sleep and live for days, weeks or months at a time, confined in a space that, per man, is less than half the size of a ping-pong table,” reporter Alissa Zhu wrote.

County officials described the trailers as an innovative and money-saving solution to jail overcrowding. But the experts Zhu spoke with criticized them as neither innovative nor humane. Northwestern University law professor David Shapiro, for instance, told Zhu the trailers were a “recipe for disaster.”

“It would be hard to imagine a worse design from the standpoint of safety and security,” Shapiro said. 


* Yesterday evening, the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered that all pretrial detainees charged with a misdemeanor offense, and who haven’t tested positive for COVID-19, be released from jail. The order follows an outbreak at the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) and a weekend of unrest in the jail. The ruling noted that “appropriate physical distancing is not possible” at the jail and “has the potential to not only place the inmates at risk of death or serious illness, but also endanger the lives and well-being of staff and service providers who work at OCCC, their families, and members of the community at large.” According to Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety, 170 OCCC detainees and 34 staff members have tested positive for the virus.

* The Marshall Project reports that the U.S. Marshals Service, which is responsible for transferring people between federal prisons and jails, isn’t testing the people it transfers for COVID-19. The Marshals Service says that it’s the Federal Bureau of Prisons’s job to test and quarantine, not theirs. While the BOP didn’t respond to reporters questions, “Staff and prisoners have blamed transfers for helping the coronavirus wreak havoc across the Bureau of Prisons, killing 111 prisoners and at least one staff member, and infecting over 10,000 prisoners and 1,200 workers in America’s largest network of prisons and jails.” 

* People held in two Santa Clara County, Calif., jails have gone on a hunger strike to protest conditions that they say sparked recent COVID-19 outbreaks in San Jose’s Main Jail and the Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas. Hunger strikes aren’t new to the Main Jail, The San Jose Mercury News reports, where, for years, incarcerated people have protested the lack of recreation time and overuse of solitary confinement.