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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

As states move toward reopening, jails and prisons continue to report large COVID-19 outbreaks; researchers call for greater transparency in reporting infection rates; and prisoners at a New York federal jail say screening is limited to, ‘Are you OK?’

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.

A number of states have started easing coronavirus restrictions and entering various phases of reopening. But infection rates in many correctional facilities continue to climb, which also pose a threat to surrounding communities: jail churn and prison staff are both considered to be vectors for the disease. The following is a snapshot of new outbreaks:

* Before Aug. 28, only three Nebraska prisons and one jail had reported a combined total of 14 cases of COVID-19. Now, twice that number have tested positive at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. Corrections Director Scott Frakes told the Lincoln Journal Star that his department had planned to discuss restarting visits and volunteer programs this week, but those plans have been put on hold.

* As of Sept. 1, 583 people incarcerated at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Okla., roughly 70 percent of the population, have tested positive for the virus. According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the outbreak originated in an open dorm housing unit. 

* In Clifton, Tennessee more than 1,100 people at the South Central Correctional Facility have tested positive as of Tuesday with 31 test results pending. The facility is operated by the for-profit prison company CoreCivic. South Central is one of four prisons in the state reporting new outbreaks.

* At the Nelson County Detention Center in Bardstown, Kentucky, 45 out of the 70 people tested were positive for COVID-19. The testing happened only after a man who was released from the jail tested positive for the virus, the TV station WDRB reports. 

* More than 130 people incarcerated at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County, West Virginia, have tested positive for COVID-19. It’s the second outbreak at the prison in less than a month, West Virginia Public Media reports.

Meanwhile, experts are sounding the alarm over a lack of transparency and uniformity in how corrections departments report infections. Researchers from the University of North Carolina and Cornell looked at data from 53 prison systems, finding that many states have failed to report accurate testing numbers and deaths. Their conclusions echo concerns raised by the lead author of a recent study of COVID-19 in Massachusetts prisons and jails. Dr. Monik Jimenez told WBUR that a lack of transparency in reporting testing data “cripples an adequate public health response.” Jimenez’s study found that the infection rate in Massachusetts correctional facilities was three times higher than in the un-jailed community.

* A nurse working in an Idaho prison told The Idaho Press that she quit “over concerns about mistreatment of inmates.” The nurse told reporters Blake Jones and Tommy Simmons that medical staff weren’t wearing masks or washing their hands between seeing patients and that a man who had tested negative for COVID-19 contracted it later, after being housed in a quarantined unit. 

* In an op-ed for Honolulu Civil Beat, two University of Hawaii sociology professors described the COVID-19 outbreak at the Oahu Community Correctional Center as a “catastrophe” resulting from overcrowding. Civil Beat also reports that a 62-year-old man who tested positive for COVID-19 was beaten to death after being locked in a cell with two other infected men. “The death marks the second time in less than two weeks that a prisoner in the Hawaii correctional system has died after being assaulted,” reporter Kevin Dayton writes.

* In sworn declarations filed recently in Manhattan Federal Court, detainees at the Metropolitan Correctional Center allege that symptom screening for COVID-19 at the federal jail “sometimes amounts to a nurse asking a dorm full of inmates ‘Is everyone OK?’”