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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown considers releasing more people from prison, how California’s Fresno County quietly became a major COVID-19 cluster, and new updates to our coronavirus outbreak map.

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 and Wednesday’s posts.

For months, lawmakers, attorneys, and prisoners-rights advocates have pushed Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to release more people from state prisons to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. In July, Brown commuted the sentences of 57 people—not nearly enough for a state prison system that needed 5,800 people released to allow for social distancing.

On Tuesday, Brown said she would consider releasing more people from prison, but under narrow conditions: only people who didn’t commit a violent crime against a person, are within two months of release, had a record of good behavior during the last year of incarceration, and have a place to live would be considered. 

Brown asked the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide her with two lists: people with serious health problems who meet her conditions and people without medical issues who meet the conditions. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that, under these conditions, only about a dozen medically vulnerable people would qualify for release. Up to 400 people meet the other conditions.  

As we’ve reported, in July, Oregon lawmakers presented Brown with a proposal to safely release up to 2,000 people from state prisons. Sen. Michael Dembrow, one of the authors of the proposal—the “Decompression Strategy for Oregon Corrections During the Pandemic”—told The Appeal that there hadn’t been significant pushback when the proposal was released and that Brown had agreed to consider the plan. He described her as supportive on prison reform, but also “very cautious.”

“So I think it’s just caution that’s winning the day,” Dembrow said. 

The news of Brown considering the commutations comes as the Oregon DOC announced that two more people from the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, which has experienced a severe outbreak of COVID-19, have died, bringing the total number of deaths to five.

Early in the pandemic, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation launched a website that provides regular updates on new COVID-19 infections, testing, deaths, and recoveries in its prisons. Getting similar information from California jails, though, has proven challenging. Reporters from the central California public radio station KVPR looked into how that lack of reporting allowed the Fresno County Jail’s high infection rate to “fly under the radar.” The jail has one of the largest COVID-19 clusters in the country—the 12th largest according to The New York Times’ coronavirus tracker

“If the Fresno County Jail were a prison, its cumulative or total number of cases during the pandemic among inmates would rank it the third largest outbreak—larger than 33 of California’s prisons,” reporters Kerry Klein, Alex Hall, and Julie Small wrote.

The story says the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t post COVID-19 data on its website and after initially sending out press releases about positive cases has since stopped. A sheriff’s spokesman said that releasing such data “stirs up hysteria.” 

But the county’s public defender and attorneys from the ACLU said making such data public is critical to public health and safety. Research has shown that, due to the “churn” of people through jails, outbreaks can easily spread to the wider community.

* Governing Magazine put together a database of state legislation aimed at reducing incarceration, likely spurred by the spotlight COVID-19 has put on prison and jail overcrowding. The bills include New Jersey’s SJR 94, which would establishe a task force “to study racial bias within criminal justice system”; Missouri’s HB 5 creates a two-year pilot project that would provide transportation to help children visit their incarcerated mothers (research overwhelmingly shows that maintaining family relationships during incarceration reduces recidivism); and Utah’s HB 6010, which would make it easier for an incarcerated person to request a modified jail sentence during a public health emergency. 

* The union representing Michigan prison guards is calling for the removal of Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington. In a letter to Washington, the union described working conditions in Michigan prisons amid COVID-19 as “unacceptable,” The Detroit Free Press reports. The letter cites staffing shortages, guards being forced to use sick leave after being exposed to coronavirus, and a lack of personal protective gear, among other issues. 

Since July 26, we’ve been mapping out new cases of coronavirus in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities to provide a visual representation of the ongoing threat the virus poses to incarcerated people, staff, and surrounding communities. Each color represents a different date range. The red dots represent cases from late July, and the brighter blue dots denote the most recent outbreaks. The current map shows roughly a month’s worth of outbreaks. To provide the most accurate snapshot of the issue, moving forward, we’ll be removing dots for facilities that report no active cases.