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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Doctors at California’s San Quentin State Prison hope other correctional institutions will learn from their experience, COVID-19 causes one Colorado county to cancel its plans to build a bigger jail, and guards at Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution are blamed for an ongoing outbreak.

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 recent posts.

In an op-ed published in the L.A. Times and Sacramento Bee, four doctors at San Quentin State Prison write that they remain “stunned” by the COVID-19 outbreak that swept through the California prison in July following a botched transfer from another facility. The doctors say they felt compelled to write about their experience, hoping that corrections officials might learn from it amid the ongoing threat COVID-19 poses to jails and prisons. 

Internist Haiyan Ramirez Batlle and physicians John Grant, George Beatty and Laura Collins describe the transfer, which brought 121 people to San Quentin from the California Institution for Men, as “profoundly ill-advised.”

“We soon discovered many of the people transferred had not been tested for several weeks before departure,” they write. “Some had symptoms upon arrival.” 

Due to overcrowding, there was no room to isolate the men and San Quentin’s structural design—featuring multiple poorly ventilated floors of cells with bars instead of solid doors—hastened the spread of the virus.

“[T]he amount of suffering, sickness and death has been staggering,” the doctors write. While the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is currently reporting only 11 active cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin, more than 2,150 people have tested positive for the virus since early June and 26 have died.

The key to minimize the risk of a widespread outbreak is to reduce prison and jail populations to below capacity, the authors write. 

“This could be done safely by minimizing new incarcerations, releasing those within months of parole or imprisoned on technical charges, and expanding the use of compassionate release for people who are frail and at high medical risk.” 

The authors also encourage correctional agencies to fully collaborate with local public-health officials and to seek input from a less-obvious source of expertise: incarcerated people.

“Finally, the system needs to listen to the people living within its walls,” they write. “Those perspectives and experiences will give us better insight into our missteps.”

* The Atlanta Journal Constitution examines efforts by federal public defenders to get medically vulnerable clients out of prison. So far, lawyers with Atlanta’s Office of the Federal Defender have filed roughly 70 motions, leading to the release of 17 people. One of those lawyers, Matthew Dodge, told reporter Bill Rankin that the urgency of the situation keeps him up at night. “We’ve had clients die of COVID during our compassionate release project. It makes me panicked every day, thinking that I’m not doing enough,” Dodge said. Nearly 13,000 people in the Federal Bureau of Prisons custody have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 125 have died.

* A recent article in The Economist examines how COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief the challenges faced by elderly prisoners, whose numbers are “increasing at a phenomenal rate” due to harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1970s and 1980s. The article cites research from the ACLU showing that it costs $72,000 to keep an elderly person in prison for a year — three times the cost of a younger person — and that by 2030, one-third of people incarcerated in the U.S. will be 55 or older.  

* The Mesa County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Office has tabled plans to expand its jail. Since April, the jail, which has space for 553, has seen its average daily population drop to 368. Sheriff Matt Lewis said he’s fine with the smaller number, telling Daily Sentinel reporter Charles Ashby that he’s now “only let[ing] those people that are necessary in.” Helping to keep the population down is a pretrial diversion program developed by District Attorney Dan Rubinstein. One program allows defendants to go to work during the day, but requires them to spend the night at a  corrections facility. The expansion would have cost upwards of $20 million and added 160 beds. 

* For more than two months, the Snake River Correctional Institution in Eastern Oregon—the state’s largest prison—has struggled to get a COVID-19 outbreak under control. Argus Observer reporter Leslie Thompson spoke with a prison employee who blamed the outbreak on correctional officers who refuse to wear masks or follow social distancing rules. “In the past month, the number of positive cases among staff at Snake River Correctional Institution has more than doubled, and has spread out to 1.7 times more inmates,” Thompson writes. The employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said the prison’s higher-ups follow the rules, but “as soon as they leave, all the regular correctional officers take their masks off.” According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, 114 Snake River staff and 310 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19. At least three have died.