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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Women at California’s Folsom prison fear that men with COVID-19 will be transferred into their building, a new report looks at the shockingly high rate of COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated people, and we update our ongoing case tracker 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 posts from Monday and Wednesday.

Earlier this week, women at the Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF), which is adjacent to California’s Folsom State Prison, started seeing signs posted on doors that connect FWF’s two units, A and B. “No females beyond this point,” some signs said, while others read, “No males beyond this point.” The women used to be able to walk freely between the two units, but now the doors are locked.

A week earlier, the roughly 100 women left in FWF were moved to the A unit. The Appeal spoke to three women who said they were told by a prison captain that men from Folsom who’d been infected by COVID-19 were going to be placed in quarantine in the B unit. According to a patient tracker maintained by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), 171 men at Folsom are currently infected with COVID-19. 

Sharon Elder, who’s incarcerated at FWF, said she and the other women are terrified. 

“There’s no way that we cannot come in contact with [the men],” she told The Appeal in a phone call. Elder, who’s 55, has diabetes and high blood pressure, which put her at risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Earlier this year, before the pandemic, she was hospitalized with pneumonia.  

“Everybody is worried,” said Keera Butler, who’s also at FWF. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.” A third woman told The Appeal that “all the [correctional officers] are talking about it and they’re not happy.”  

Elder said the women are already dealing with conditions that verge on punitive. They’re allowed outside on a small patio for only an hour each day. “We used to be able to go outside anytime we wanted to,” she said. “Now we’re locked down in here all day.”

Corrections department spokeswoman Dana Simas told The Appeal there are “no current plans to move male inmates” to FWF. She said the women were moved to one side of the prison because there are so few of them. FWF has capacity for 430, but just over 100 women remain in the prison. 

“There have been housing movement decisions based on efficient use of space as well as preparing vacant isolation/quarantine space in the event there is a positive inmate case reported,” Simas said via email.

Alison Hardy, a senior staff attorney with Prison Law Office, which has been monitoring conditions at CDCR facilities, said she’s reached out to CDCR attorneys about the situation at FWF but hasn’t received a response. Hardy said the department was under a court order to make space in each prison to quarantine people who are exposed to COVID-19 and isolate people with the virus. 

Hardy said Folsom prison, which opened in 1880 and has a layout similar to San Quentin, doesn’t really have its own quarantine or isolation space.  

“I would not be surprised if they carved out additional space for men at the FWF,” she said.

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, whose members include government and corrections officials, academics, and advocates for incarcerated people, issued two reports this week, one looking at COVID-19 in jails and the other, which examined COVID-19 in prisons. Key findings include: 

  • Jail populations decreased by an average of 31 percent between March 16 and May 2, but then started ticking back up, “despite steep increases in new COVID-19 cases in local communities”;
  • People released from jail early were more likely to be white; 
  • Despite claims by some law-enforcement officials that jail releases are causing an uptick in crime, researchers found that “rebooking rates for jailed individuals released after March 16 remained below pre-pandemic rebooking rates”; 
  • The absence of data on jail infections “has impeded inquiry into rates of COVID-19 transmission both within jails, and between jails and communities”;
  • Through mid-August, the rate of COVID-19 infections in state and federal prisons in the U.S. was more than four times the rate of infections among the nonincarcerated population; 
  • From the start of the pandemic through mid-August, the COVID-19 mortality rate in prisons was twice the COVID-19 mortality rate in the unincarcerated U.S. population;
  • Five state prison systems reported COVID-19 mortality rates that were more than eight times higher than state mortality rates. Ohio’s prison mortality rate was roughly 11 times higher, and Arkansas’ was nearly 20 times higher.

* Near the beginning of the pandemic, Kelsey Kauffman, a prisoner-rights advocate and former corrections officer, created the website Mourning Our Losses to memorialize incarcerated people who’ve died from COVID-19. (In March, Kauffman wrote an op-ed for The Appeal about the threat the virus poses to people in jail.) The website currently includes more than 100 memorials, The Washington Post reports. Anyone can contribute as long as they follow the project’s style guide: no mug shots and mentioning the person’s criminal history is not allowed. The Post spoke to one contributor, Beth Muse, who’s at Arrendale State Prison in Georgia. She wrote about Derick Coley, who was only 29 when he died from COVID-19 in May at Arkansas’ Cummins Unit. Muse didn’t know Coley, but was moved by a photo of Coley and his young daughter, taken during a Father’s Day visit. Muse told reporter Justin Wm. Moyer that she wondered if prison officials would have taken extra precautions if they’d thought of Coley not as just an inmate, but also as a father. 

* A wedding in Maine has been traced as the origin for 144 cases of COVID-19, including 46 people incarcerated at the York County Jail, 22 jail staff, and 17 of their family members. A jail guard attended the wedding, but state officials are also placing blame on the jail, which didn’t take basic precautions to prevent the virus from spreading, the Bangor Daily News reports. York County officials said Thursday that they’re launching an inquiry into the outbreak. 

As part of our ongoing effort to track coronavirus in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities, we’ve been mapping facilities reporting at least two infections. For previous maps, the color of a dot represented a date range. Moving forward, the color of the dot will represent the type of facility: red for prisons, blue for jails, yellow for federal facilities and orange for juvenile facilities. The current map shows outbreaks since July 26 for facilities that are still reporting active cases.