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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A new lawsuit uses the lesson of one prison to demand the release of people from New Mexico lock-ups, a new bill would require more transparency in reporting COVID-19 cases in prisons and jails, and deaths of incarcerated people hit a grim milestone.

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.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, civil-rights attorneys across the country filed lawsuits seeking the release of medically vulnerable people from prisons that, they argued, were crowded and unsanitary vectors for disease. Few of these efforts were successful, including an emergency petition filed in April by New Mexico’s Law Offices of the Public Defender, seeking the release of 500 people from state prisons. 

The state’s supreme court rejected the request, finding no evidence that state corrections officials were being deliberately indifferent to prisoners’ health and safety. 

Monday, a different group of attorneys filed a lawsuit, also seeking the release of people incarcerated in New Mexico prisons. The Appeal asked Christopher Casolaro, one of the attorneys, what makes this lawsuit more likely to succeed than its predecessors. 

“The facts are very different now,” Casolaro said. Prior lawsuits were prospective, he argued, looking ahead at what could happen if people weren’t released.

“What the [public defender’s lawsuit] said was going to happen did happen,” Casolaro said.

Two weeks after the state court’s ruling, an employee at the Otero prison in Chaparral, New Mexico, tested positive for COVID-19. Within two weeks, nearly 300 people had been infected. Ultimately 467 Otero prisoners, or roughly 87 percent of the prison, contracted the virus; four died.

The lawsuit describes the Otero outbreak as “a warning, and a lesson as to what can be expected in other New Mexico prison facilities.”

New Mexico’s 11 prisons hold roughly 6,200 people. Four of the prisons house people in dormitory-style units that hold between a dozen and 72 people. 

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that COVID-19 infections are three times more prevalent in dormitory-based housing than in cell-based housing.

But even in facilities with single- or double-occupancy cells, people congregate in day rooms and eat meals together, creating more opportunities for the virus to spread, the lawsuit argues.

The lawsuit names three subclasses of prisoners—medically vulnerable, people imprisoned on parole or probation revocations, and nonviolent offenders—and lays out a process under which members of each subclass could be identified and considered for release. It also asks the court to require prisons to take certain measures to protect against the virus, like mandatory testing of staff, providing incarcerated people with sufficient cleaning and sanitation supplies, establishing staggered meals, and recreation time to aid social distancing and ensuring that anyone placed into medical isolation doesn’t lose rights like access to personal property, telephone calls, and communication with attorneys.

When federal corrections officer Kareen “Troy” Troitino returned to his job at Federal Corrections Institute Miami earlier this month, he was greeted by loud cheers from prisoners. Word had gotten around that Troitino was talking to the media, lawmakers, and prison administrators about the federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) failure to protect federal employees and prisoners from COVID-19. The BOP, which incarcerates roughly 127,000 people, has seen more deaths from COVID-19 (120) than any state prison system except Texas (122 deaths), which incarcerates nearly 131,000 people. 

In response to what they say is a lack of transparency from the BOP and other corrections agencies, a group of lawmakers, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker and Rep. Ayanna Pressley , introduced a bill—the COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act—that would require operators of prisons and jails on the federal, state, and local levels to collect and publicly report comprehensive data on COVID-19 testing infections and deaths. The law would also require prisons and jails to report detailed information about incarcerated people who’ve contracted the virus, such as time served, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, and disability. Anyone failing to submit this data to the Centers for Disease Control would lose 10 percent in future funding.

* The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jason Fagone writes about families struggling to pay burial costs for loved ones who’ve died in California prisons from COVID-19. One grieving wife who never got a chance to say goodbye to her husband received a bill for $900 for his cremation. Another family, who didn’t know their loved one was hospitalized until after his death, received a bill for $1,807.57. An attorney representing people incarcerated in California prisons described the department’s policy of not paying burial or cremation costs as “disgusting.”

* On his Sentencing Law and Policy blog, Douglas Berman, a professor at Moritz College of Law, writes that COVID-19 has now killed more people in U.S. prisons than the death penalty has in the last 20 years. Berman published his post on Sunday, when UCLA’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project showed that 858 incarcerated people had died from the virus. Since then, the number has increased to 902. By comparison, 839 people have been executed in the U.S. since 2000. Berman notes, however, that comparing the numbers obscures lots of important information.  For instance, most incarcerated people who’ve died from COVID-19 weren’t imprisoned for taking a life. “Another problem with comparing capital punishment and COVID incarceration carnage,” he writes, is that “correctional staff do not die from administering capital punishment, but many have died from COVID.”