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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Women at California’s Folsom prison report that men with COVID-19 have been moved into their building, an ACLU attorney says federal judges don’t understand the realities of incarceration, and Iowa’s prisons are emptier than they’ve been in 20 years—but are still over capacity.

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.

Since July, California’s Folsom State Prison (FSP) has grappled with an increasing number of COVID-19 infections; the facility currently has 534 active cases, more than at any other California prison. In late August, three women incarcerated at the Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF), which sits adjacent to FSP, contacted The Appeal to say they’d been told that men from Folsom who’d been infected by COVID-19 would be moved into their building

The women’s facility is divided into two units, A and B, and only about 100 women remain in FWF, down from 400 earlier this year. In August,  all of the remaining women were moved over to the A Unit. This, three of the women believed, was a precursor to transferring the infected men to the B Unit. At the time, Dana Simas, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), told The Appeal that there were “no current plans to move male inmates” to FWF. She said the women were moved to one side of the prison because there were so few of them left. 

Earlier this week, however, the same women told The Appeal that 153 men had been moved into B Unit. Simas didn’t respond to emails asking about the transfer and whether the men are indeed COVID-19 patients.

The two units are separated by locked doors, but staff members move back and forth. There’s a corridor dividing the two units that the women use, which is lined with windows that were recently tinted. The women can’t see to the other side of the windows, but, as they told The Appeal, the men pound on the windows and holler as they walk by.

“A lot of women here have been molested or raped,” said Keera Butler, who’s incarcerated at FWF. She said the experience of walking the hallway is upsetting. 

So far, no women at FWF have tested positive for COVID-19. They told The Appeal they want to keep it that way. 

“Why would you bring cases in here?” said Sharon Elder. “It’s like they’re trying to ruin it for us.” 

Elder, who’s 55, has several medical conditions that put her at risk of complications if she contracted the virus. Elder said the women have all filed formal complaints over the transfer but have yet to receive a response.

Alison Hardy, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, told The Appeal earlier this month that CDCR was under a court order to make space in each prison to quarantine people who are exposed to COVID-19 and isolate people who’ve tested positive for the virus. Folsom State Prison, which opened in 1880, lacks adequate quarantine or isolation space. Folsom Women’s Facility is located in a newer building that formerly housed a treatment program for parolees. 

The Prison Law Office, whose attorneys have been monitoring conditions in California prisons and pushing for policy changes, said they will be discussing the situation at Folsom with CDCR officials on Friday.  

On Tuesday, a group of civil-rights attorneys asked a federal judge to allow them to amend a complaint filed on behalf of people incarcerated in Tennessee’s Shelby County Jail. The class-action lawsuit, filed in May, requested the release of roughly 300 medically vulnerable people. In August, the judge denied that request, but acknowledged the jail’s “public health failures” and urged officials to fix them. 

Nothing was fixed.

According to the amended complaint, the jail is engaging in “wholly ineffective” quarantine practices, is not testing arrestees, and has failed to implement basic social-distancing measures.  

In a commentary published Sept. 15, ACLU staff attorney Andrea Woods, who’s involved in the Shelby County lawsuit, expressed her frustration with government officials’ responses to the threat that COVID-19 poses to people in prisons and jails.

“It should not be news to anyone that the scales of justice are tipped in favor of the powerful, but it’s never been starker to me than now,” she writes. 

Federal judges have disappointed Woods the most, because they tend to believe jailers over incarcerated people, many of whom provide testimony at the risk of retaliation. The federal bench—mostly male and white with backgrounds in prosecution and civil litigation—is not representative of the people whose rights they’re charged with protecting. As more than 1,000 incarcerated people have died from the virus, COVID-19 has underscored this disparity..

“This year, a lack of judges who understand the true horrors of our incarceration machine meant that incarceration has been a death sentence for far too many people,” Woods writes.

* An outbreak at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, has resulted in some prisoners being held past their release dates. KTVI reporter Chris Hayes talked to 22-year-old John Harden, who’s parole date was last Friday, but was told he would need to remain in prison for several more days. Prison officials told Hayes they want to make sure they’re not releasing anyone with COVID-19. Harden had already been tested for the virus, and his results were negative.


* The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to create a Jail Population Council to “safely reduce the rate of incarceration in Los Angeles County.” The Los Angeles Daily News reports that Sheriff Alex Villanueva isn’t happy about the new council, telling lawmakers that jail population management “is an authority that exclusively resides with my office.”

* The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that Iowa’s prison system has dropped to fewer than 8,000 people, a 20-year low, due to expedited parole for medically vulnerable prisoners and a hold on jail transfers. As of Friday, the state’s nine prisons held 7,400 people—“still above the system’s capacity of 6,933,” reporter Erin Jordan writes, “but well below the nearly 8,494 offenders the system held in early April.”

* Pittsburgh’s PublicSource looks at the impact COVID-19 restrictions have had on folks in the Allegheny County Jail. Current and former staff members tell reporter Juliette Rihl that limited out-of-cell time—a maximum of 30 minutes—a shortage of mental-health staff, and lack of contact with family is taking its toll. One employee described conditions as “horrendous” and “demoralizing.”