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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Despite early warnings, jails and prisons have seen a rapid spread of the virus—a humanitarian disaster that puts all of our communities, and lives, at risk. Every day, The Appeal examines the scale of the crisis, numbers of infected and dead, around the nation.

Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Despite early warnings, jails and prisons have seen a rapid spread of the virus—a humanitarian disaster that puts all of our communities, and lives, at risk. Every day, The Appeal examines the scale of the crisis, numbers of infected and dead, around the nation.


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. On a daily basis 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. Find a daily update here from Monday.


In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Plata that California needed to reduce its prison population to no more than 137.5 percent capacity. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation complied—mostly. 

According to CDCR’s most recent population report, from May 27, all but two of its prisons exceeded 100 percent capacity and 10 were over the Plata cap, including Avenal State Prison in Central California. Designed to hold 2,920 people, Avenal currently houses 4,162 people, putting it 42.5 percent over capacity. 

COVID-19 has brought Avenal’s overcrowding into sharp relief. As of June 2, the prison held 581 people with active infections. The Visalia Times Delta reported Monday that Avenal was “home to CDCR’s worst COVID-19 outbreak,” but by noon had to update the story when Chuckawalla State Prison (located, like Avenal, in Kings County), reported 792 active cases. 

Chuckawalla, according to CDCR data, is 31.5 percent over capacity. 

Attorneys from the Prison Law Office and the law firm of Rosen, Bien, Galvan, and Grunfeld have argued in federal court, so far unsuccessfully, that CDCR needs to release more people. The state initially released 3,500 prisoners, all of whom had 60 days or less remaining on their sentences, but has refused to release more, even eldery or medically vulnerable prisoners. 

Prison Law Office Senior Staff Attorney Alison Hardy told The Appeal Tuesday that the judges were surprised by CDCR’s refusal to release more people, but felt their hands were tied by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a 1996 law that made it more difficult for prisoners to seek relief from federal courts over conditions of confinement.

On April 2—when CDCR was reporting only a dozen COVID-19 cases—Prison Law Office attorney Sara Norman told a federal three-judge panel that California prisons were “a portrait of drastic overcrowding” that threatened not only the lives of prisoners and staff, but also California’s health care system. 

Today CDCR is reporting nearly 2,000 positive cases. On Monday, CDCR also reported its first staff death. According to the AP, Correctional Officer Danny Mendoza, 53, died Saturday “after recently testing positive for the coronavirus.” 

“It’s shocking and not shocking,” Hardy said. “This is what we told the state and the judge was going to happen, particularly in the prisons that have large dormitories, which Avenal and Chuckawalla are almost exclusively.”

Hardy said that while she saw an “extraordinary amount” of cleaning at Vacaville Prison when she visited the facility last week, “I don’t think that it is possible to control the virus in crowded facilities. Even though the population has been reduced, it’s still overcrowded.”

Hardy said Plata’s 137.5 percent capacity requirement was considered the most California prisons could hold and still be able to provide “adequate” health care.

“That did not take into account pandemic conditions,” she said. 


In a tweet Monday, UCLA’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project featured several graphs illustrating the extent to which widespread testing is showing the spread of COVID-19 infections in prison. The graphs look at three prisons—California’s Avenal, Neuse Prison in North Carolina, and Trousdale Correctional Center in Tennessee—and the Texas prison system as a whole. 

Yesterday, we wrote about a federal judge’s May 26 ruling that Orange County, Calif., jails needed to provide prisoners with adequate cleaning and personal hygiene supplies and ensure they had enough space to remain six feet apart. Sheriff Don Barnes appealed U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal’s ruling and applied for a stay of the order pending appeal. Today, Bernal denied Barnes’ request.

Bernal wrote that he’d already considered and rejected many of the arguments Barnes planned to raise on appeal, including that the measures Bernal was requiring exceeded CDC guidelines. 

“While a detention center with only two confirmed cases need not exceed those guidelines, more must be done when there are nearly four hundred confirmed cases in a facility,” Bernal wrote. The Sheriff’s Department reported today that 379 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19, an increase of two from Monday.


The Appeal’s Kira Lerner reports today that “at least 10 people were held for several days in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, one of the country’s hot spots for COVID-19 infections, because the city ran out of ankle monitors.”

As of Monday, seven Cook County jail detainees and three sheriff’s office employees had died from COVID-19.