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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

After testing positive for COVID-19, Tommy Zeigler, whose case inspired legislation and multiple investigative reports, is missing in a Florida prison; advocates for women inside Oklahoma’s Eddie Warrior Correctional Center want to hear from Gov. Kevin Stitt; and men quarantined in a previously shuttered prison say they’re being forced to pee in cups.

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.

When COVID-19 reached death row in Florida’s Union Correctional Institution, Tampa Bay Times’ reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton checked on Tommy Zeigler, who’s been on death row for 44 years. Ziegler was the focus of an extensive 2018 Tampa Bay Times investigative series, Blood and Truth, that examined how the state has denied incarcerated people access to modern DNA testing. 

In 1976, Zeigler was sentenced to death  for killing his wife, her parents, and another man at his family’s furniture store. He’s maintained his innocence and evidence uncovered since his trial pokes holes in the state’s case against him. A 1992 book about the murders, Fatal Flaw: A True Story of Malice and Murder in a Small Southern Town, by investigative reporter Philip Finch, argues for Zeigler’s exoneration. 

The Tampa Bay Times’ investigation was compelling enough to motivate Florida lawmaker Jamie Grant to author a bill that would have made it easier for Zeigler, and others, to access forensic testing that could prove their innocence. Though the bill received unanimous approval in the House, it died in the Senate. 

On Friday, Anton published her report.

Zeigler, now 75, wrote to a supporter on Aug. 28, that he “was struggling trying to breathe.” Last week, two of Zeigler’s neighbors on death row told Anton they’d heard Zeigler had tested positive for COVID-19. (Both men said they’d also tested positive.) 

Death row inmate Daniel Peterka told Anton, the Times reporter, that Zeigler was taken to the prison hospital on Aug. 29 and no one had seen him since. Neither his lawyers, his cousin—who is his only living relative—nor friends know where he is. The cousin, Connie Crawford, told Anton that she’d tried, unsuccessfully, to get a prison chaplain and nurse to help her get information.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, as of Monday, 127 people at Union Correctional Institution have tested positive for COVID-19. 

At a Sept. 9 meeting of the board that oversees the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, DOC officials were praised for their efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons, with one board member suggesting the private sector could learn from the DOC’s approach. But dozens of people who rallied outside the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center two days later disagree.

A COVID-19 outbreak at the women’s prison in Taft, Oklahoma, has infected more than 750 people, or roughly 80 percent of the population. (In a recent news release, the DOC said 400 women have recovered.) Reporters from Tulsa Public Radio and Tulsa World, who covered the protest, noted Gov. Kevin Stitt’s silence about the outbreak after his earlier praise of the DOC for being a leader in its coronavirus response. 

At the protest, “Much of the ire was directed toward Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has not held a press conference or given an address focused on the situation at Eddie Warrior or other state correctional facilities,” Tulsa World’s Samantha Vicent wrote. According to the DOC, there are 662 active cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma prisons.

* The family of a man who died from COVID-19 while incarcerated in San Quentin has filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Daniel Ruiz, 61, died on July 11. San Quentin had no cases of COVID-19 prior to a botched prisoner transfer in early June. According to the claim, which was posted online by San Francisco’s CBS affiliate, Ruiz had been notified in March that he was eligible for early release, but didn’t hear anything beyond that. The suit alleges that CDCR officials ignored multiple warnings from public-health experts that an outbreak at San Quentin could result in a “catastrophic super spreader event.”

* An op-ed in the New York Daily News takes Gov. Andrew Cuomo to task for speaking about the need to reform the criminal-legal system, but doing little to release people from state prisons amid the coronavirus pandemic. Stephen Zeidman, a professor at CUNY School of Law, notes that Cuomo has granted clemency to only three people. “While COVID’s devastating impact should compel a dramatic contraction of the prison population,” Zeidman writes, “it also presents an opportunity for the governor to answer a fundamental question he posed in a 2017 interview about clemency: ‘The older I get, the correction system — what are we accomplishing in the first place? Lock a person up for 10 years, and you have accomplished what? You take a bad situation and every time you make it worse.’”

* Side Effects Public Media’s Jake Harper spoke with family members of people incarcerated at Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana, where more than 70 people have tested positive for COVID-19. The mother of a young man infected by the virus said her son believes he contracted it after being moved into a cell that hadn’t been cleaned after the two men who previously occupied it tested positive. The son, who has Hepatitis C, told his mom that “his liver hurt, and he had lost consciousness twice” since being diagnosed.

* Two years ago, the Alabama Department of Corrections closed Draper Correctional Facility after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found the prison “plagued by rats, maggots, open sewage and toxic fumes.” In April, part of the facility was renovated to serve as a temporary quarantine unit for state prisoners who test positive for COVID-19. Despite the clean-up work, critics say Draper isn’t fit to house people with a potentially deadly disease. reporter Connor Sheets spoke to two men who described the lack of access to medical care, sinks with no hot water, fights over limited hand sanitizer, and toilets that don’t work. Rodney Walton, who was transferred to Draper in June, after testing positive for COVID-19, said men are given cups to pee in, “and when it fills up you take it outside to pour it out because they don’t want to keep opening the door.”