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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in state prisons, Oregon lawmakers grapple with decarceration plans; the Sacramento County Sheriff won’t share infection data with the oversight board; and Oklahoma corrections officials use CARES Act money to ’boost morale’.

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 Monday’s post.

It’s been just over two months since members of the Oregon Legislature’s Senate and Assembly public safety committees asked Gov. Kate Brown to consider their proposal to release up to 2,000 people from state prisons. The “Decompression Strategy for Oregon Corrections During the Pandemic” followed an April report by the Department of Corrections that 5,800 people would need to be released to allow for adequate social distancing in Oregon prisons. 

The plan called for tiered, “rolling” releases starting with people who have serious underlying medical conditions. Only people who have a place to live upon release, a negative COVID-19 test, and weren’t convicted of a violent crime against another person would be eligible.

Brown, who has said that she doesn’t support releasing a large number of people, ultimately commuted the sentences of only 57. Meanwhile, the outbreaks that prompted legislators to draw up the decompression plan have spread from two prisons to four, infecting more than 500 people.

In July, a month after lawmakers introduced their plan, Brown proposed closing two Oregon prisons to address a state budget shortfall—the Shutter Creek Correctional Institution and the Warner Creek Correctional Facility, both located in rural areas—and is facing steep opposition from people employed by the prisons and critics who say closing the prisons without releasing people would cause more overcrowding.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, one of the authors of the decompression plan, said he and his colleagues hoped the decompression plan would align with the governor’s proposed closures.  

“Simply by letting people out a few months early, that problem would be dealt with,” he said, describing the plan as “reasonable and rational.” 

Dembrow said he and his colleagues plan to re-group and figure out a way to push the prisoner-release plan forward, as the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.

“The ability to re-energize the plan, unfortunately, is going to be dependent on more outbreaks in our prisons, which is sad,” he said.

For now, people incarcerated in Oregon prisons who are at risk of complications from COVID-19 will need to appeal to a judge for release. Tanja Lupoli’s husband Mylo is one of them. He’s serving a six-year sentence at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, where nearly 200 people have tested positive. Mylo, who’s 61, suffers from several serious health conditions, including COPD and high blood pressure. Tanja said his health has gotten worse since he was imprisoned. 

They talk on the phone every day. “Recently I’ve been hearing fear in his voice,” she said.

Mylo is only one year into his sentence for drug possession. He’d been clean for more than 20 years, Tanja said, but returned to drugs shortly after his mother’s death. In prison, Mylo is housed in a dorm-style unit, and the man in the bunk next to his was recently quarantined on COVID-19-related precautions, she said. 

Mylo’s attorney has filed a petition with the court, outlining his medical issues. 

Tanja said she hopes Brown will reconsider granting additional releases. She plans to travel to the governor’s office on Saturday for a protest organized by family members of incarcerated people and advocates.

Over the last few weeks, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections has been collecting and publishing COVID-19-related data from jails and juvenile-detention facilities, something it agreed to do after pressure from correctional oversight experts. But two of the state’s 58 sheriff’s departments—Sacramento and Tehama—have refused to participate. A spokesperson for Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones told The Sacramento Bee’s Jason Pohl that Jones doesn’t believe the information that the BSCC is providing is comprehensive enough. But unlike some other large county sheriff’s departments, Sacramento doesn’t post COVID-19 information about its jails on its website. (Pohl, however, was able to get information on request. As of Tuesday, 42 people incarcerated there have tested positive.)

In June, The Appeal reported on Jones’s refusal to require his deputies to wear masks, a position that attorneys representing people with disabilities incarcerated in Sacramento jails described as “indefensible.” Ultimately, the attorneys negotiated a settlement with the department, as part of a lawsuit about jail conditions, under which deputies are required to carry a department-issued face covering at all times while on their shift. 

* The death of Daniel Ocasio at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Connecticut made national headlines because Ocasio, 32, used a COVID-19 mask to take his own life. He’d been in the prison for a week, held on a $10,000 bond after being charged with burglary and violating a protective order. CT Mirror reporter Kelan Lyons took a close look at the cutbacks to mental-health services in Connecticut lock-ups that might have identified Ocasio as at risk of suicide. One clinician told Lyons that she’s been limited to what she described as “drive-by therapy,” doing assessments through closed cell doors. An advocate for incarcerated people told Lyons that it can be a three-month wait to get an appointment for treatment. 

* While some corrections departments have spent CARES Act money to hire additional deputies and enhance prison security, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections purchased a PlayStation console, video games, basketballs and nets, hacky sacks, jump ropes, board and arcade games, Blu-ray players, videos, and popcorn in an effort to “boost morale” and “combat inmate idleness,” The Tulsa World News reports.  

* Protestors gathered at the entrance to Rikers Island on Tuesday to draw attention to conditions faced by women being held in the jail’s Rose M. Singer Center. The Crime Report covered the protest, where advocates said jail staff were placing detainees in solitary confinement to control the spread of COVID-19.