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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

What makes Ohio prisons so deadly, the CDC urges corrections officials to conduct mass testing, and the Washington Post editorial board finds a surge in jail and prison COVID-19 outbreaks ’morbidly unsurprising’.

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. Check out recent posts.

Ohio and Pennsylvania, neighboring states with similar demographics, were hit with COVID-19 around the same time. Yet Pennsylvania has reported far more cases of the virus and more deaths than Ohio—except in its prisons. 

According to the Marshall Project’s Coronavirus in Prisons tracker, 87 people in the custody of Ohio prisons have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic started. Only 11 people in Pennsylvania prisons have died. 

In Ohio, being incarcerated increases your chance of dying from COVID-19 by more than 500 percent, according to a recent report from Eye on Ohio, a project of the nonprofit Ohio Center for Journalism. But being in a Pennsylvania prison is actually a protective factor against dying from the virus: an incarcerated Pennsylvanian is less than half as likely to die from COVID-19 then a Pennsylvanian who’s not in prison. 

Eye on Ohio reporters Cid Standifer and Brie Zeltner dug into the reasons for these disparities:

  • At the start of the pandemic, Ohio prisons were 32 percent over capacity, while Pennsylvania’s prisons were 5 percent under capacity. 
  • Sixty percent of people in Ohio prisons live in dorm- or barracks-style housing, where dozens of people sleep just a few feet apart, often in stacked bunks. At the Marion Correctional Institute in Ohio, where 2,443 people were infected and 77 died, nearly three-quarters of the prison’s population sleeps in dorms. In Pennsylvania, 19 percent of prisoners live in dorms; the others live in single- or double-occupancy cells.

In the early days of the pandemic, Pennsylvania freed more people to allow for social distancing: nearly 3,500 compared with Ohio’s 167.

* In a new report, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cast a critical eye on the correctional facilities that refuse to engage in mass testing. “Symptom-based testing cannot identify asymptomatic and presymptomatic persons, who represent an estimated 40%-45% of infected persons,” the report says. Sporadic testing can also dissuade people from reporting symptoms, researchers found, due to fear of stigma or of being placed in medical isolation. Mass testing allows facilities to quarantine people who test positive. The study also encourages mass testing of staff, noting that in half of the 16 prisons and jails that researchers surveyed a staff member introduced the virus into the facility. Another important finding: instances of COVID-19 were nearly three times higher in dorm-style housing units than in cell-based housing, “suggesting that housing configuration might contribute to transmission.” 

* Honolulu Civil Beat reports that mass testing at the Oahu Community Correctional Center—where more than 220 incarcerated people and 42 staff members have tested positive for  COVID-19—has turned up infections in almost all of the jail’s 19 housing units. One jail staffer told the newspaper that sick prisoners were being mixed in with healthy prisoners, forcing the latter group to make threats against the sick prisoners just so they’d get moved to a different unit.  

* A weekend editorial in The Washington Post urges states to release more people from prison to stop the spread of COVID-19. The editorial calls it “morbidly unsurprising” that the virus continues to tear through jails and prisons, “where cramped quarters make social distancing impossible.” The editorial links to a June New York Times story about the growing number of infections behind bars, but it’s easy to find more recent examples. Currently, in Michigan’s Muskegon Correctional Facility, nearly half of the 1,296 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. And, as The Appeal’s Alexandra DeLuca reports, as of last Thursday, 993 incarcerated women and 62 staffers at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida, have tested positive for the virus. Our ongoing effort to mapping out new infections illustrates the continuing threat COVID-19 poses to correctional facilities.  

* The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is pushing back against claims by the sheriff and warden of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison that they have its COVID-19 outbreak under control. The advocacy group argues that “nothing is further from the truth” and that the jail—which holds more than 1,500 men and women—is experiencing “a second wave of active coronavirus cases.” In a statement, CCR, which is suing Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and Warden Dennis Grimes over jail conditions, describes the facility as “decrepit, unhygienic, and unsafe.”