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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A court ruling allows the Cook County Jail to return to double-occupancy and dorm-style housing, a state oversight agency makes an example of New York’s Fishkill prison, and we update our ongoing map of new COVID-19 cases.

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 Tuesday’s post.

On Tuesday, a ruling by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned key parts of an earlier court order barring Chicago’s Cook County Jail from using double-occupancy cells or the dorm-style housing that have been blamed for spreading COVID-19 in prisons and jails. The three-judge panel found that jail officials have made “substantial efforts to increase social distancing, such as opening shuttered divisions of the Jail, creating new single-cell housing, and decreasing the capacity of dormitories.” 

The Cook County jail has gone from being the largest COVID-19 hotspot in the U.S. to being held up as a model for its response to the outbreak. 

Though the ruling ostensibly allows the jail to return to using two-person and group housing, a spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart told the Chicago Sun-Times that Dart doesn’t plan to depart from measures he’s undertaken to prevent another outbreak in the jail. 

Jail detainees filed a class-action lawsuit in March calling for the release or transfer of medically vulnerable prisoners. While U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ordered jail officials to take certain precautionary measures—like ordering enough supplies for widespread testing—he declined to order prisoner releases.   

According to the jail’s website, 31 people in custody are currently positive for COVID-19.

A report by the Correctional Association of New York obtained by The Daily Orange, a nonprofit newsroom based in Syracuse, blames “inconsistent medical procedures and deviations from the state’s emergency protocol” for a COVID-19 outbreak at Fishkill Correctional Facility that infected more than 100 people. 

Fishkill has had the largest outbreak among New York prisons. Authorities chose to inspect the facility after the deaths of five detainees—more than at any other New York prison. 

Many of the report’s findings echo criticisms levied at correctional facilities throughout the U.S. that have experienced significant outbreaks: the prison lacks enough space for social distancing, neither prisoners nor staff were consistently wearing masks, and few people were being tested.

But some of the findings were surprising, like the degree of misinformation being provided to detainees. For instance, some detainees thought that a temperature screening was the same as a COVID-19 test. Accurate and substantive information has been hard to come by in other ways. As reporter Gabe Stern writes, “One inmate said he had to submit a Freedom of Information Law request to receive his test results, which came back positive.”

* Oklahoma Watch reporter Keaton Ross looks at the crisis unfolding at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center. All but roughly 60 of the 802 women incarcerated there have tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak stems from a prisoner transfer that involved screenings for coronavirus symptoms but not testing.

* David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prisons Project, told The Guardian’s Jessica Glenza that COVID-19 infections in prisons and jails are “almost certainly going to get much worse.”

* While no one incarcerated in the Burlington County (New Jersey) Jail has tested positive for coronavirus, the virus has still affected them. Last week, a protest in front of the jail sought to draw attention to how long people are being held with no charges, due to the suspension of court activity. The Burlington County Times spoke with one young woman, Kaeleigh McDonald, who said her father has been jailed since May. “He has not been indicted, or informed when that will take place,” reporter George Woolston writes.

For the last seven weeks, we’ve posted a map showing which jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities are currently dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. This week’s map includes fewer new outbreaks (21) than the previous week, but as more jurisdictions adopt a comprehensive testing strategy, more facilities are reporting a significant number of cases. At Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover, Va., for instance, 70 percent of tests came back positive. At the South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tenn., out of the 3,047 people tested, 1,161 were positive. 

State prison systems that, for months, have tried to get a handle on outbreaks continue to see new cases. In Texas, for example, 52 of the state’s 106 prisons are reporting that at least one person in custody is infected with the virus. In California, 26 of 35 prisons are reporting at least one positive case; in Florida, 43 out of 57 prisons report at least one positive case.

Key: Red for prisons, blue for jails, yellow for federal facilities, and orange for juvenile facilities