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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Despite more than 16,000 COVID-19 infections in Florida’s prisons, the head of the system says his department has protected people from the virus; Science Magazine explores research being conducted on decarceration best practices; and a recent outbreak puts South Dakota on our new infections 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 recent posts.

In a recent interview, the head of Florida’s prison system, Mark Inch, insisted that his department has done a good job of keeping COVID-19 out of its facilities. He attributed the success to suspending in-person visits and volunteer-run programs. 

According to UCLA law school’s Covid Behind Bars Data Project, every prison system in the country suspended in-person visits in March. But as Tampa Bay Times reporter Ana Ceballos points out, Inch made these comments to The Florida Channel, a state-funded news outlet. Inch, who himself was diagnosed with COVID-19 after visiting a prison and attending a conference in late July, declined Ceballos’s interview request.

While infections in Florida prisons appear to have declined significantly in the last couple of weeks—the Department of Corrections’ case tracker shows 430 active cases—roughly 20 percent of the state’s prison population, 16,000 people, has tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, Ceballos reports, and 120 people have died, including three corrections officers. 

“If 20 percent of [Florida’s] population contracted the virus, that would be about 4.3 million people,” Ceballos writes.

Virginia prisons have also struggled with COVID-19 outbreaks, with more than 3,200 incarcerated people testing positive for the virus. Half of those cases were reported after prison officials announced that they had COVID-19 under control. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury reports that in early July, there were only 16 active cases among the state’s 40 prisons.  

“But if the state was declaring victory over COVID-19 behind bars, it would soon prove fleeting,” Oliver writes.

While many prisons in Virginia haven’t seen any cases, five have had significant outbreaks—with more than 250 infections each.   

Early in the pandemic, prison officials identified 2,000 people who qualified for an early-release program, but only 530 have been freed, Oliver reports. Just before cases spiked, the clerk for the federal judge overseeing a settlement agreement in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Virginia wrote in an email that the judge was “alarmed” by how few people had been released. Corrections officials blamed the slow response on a shortage of qualified staff. 

Oliver spoke to 39-year-old Isaiah Johnson, who has only four months and two weeks left on his sentence and qualifies for the early-release program. He tested positive for the virus last week. Johnson is at the Deerfield Correctional Center, which houses some of the state’s most medically vulnerable people. More than 500 people at the prison have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and eight have died, four of them this week.

* An article in the October issue of Science Magazine looks at some of the research currently being conducted on decareration efforts spurred by COVID-19, including a report on best practices by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, slated for release next month.

* Independent journalist Justine van der Leun used COVID-19 as a springboard for a poignant look at challenges faced by incarcerated women, whose lives are too often marked by trauma and abuse. “Because conversations about mass incarceration usually focus on the more than two million men behind bars, women in prisons are especially marginalized,” she writes. “The coronavirus has made those in women’s prisons still more vulnerable.”

* Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Grant Blankenship looked into why coronavirus cases in tiny Wheeler County (population 8,000) suddenly doubled last week. He found that CoreCivic, which operates the Wheeler Correctional Facility, lagged on reporting an outbreak that infected 145 prisoners. A public-health official told Blankenship that all cases in the county—319 as of today—are tied to the prison. 

Since late July, we’ve been publishing a map tracking new cases of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. The week’s map is the first time a dot has appeared in South Dakota, where at least 105 inmates and five staff members at the women’s prison in Pierre have been diagnosed with the virus. Prior to the outbreak, the highest case count was at Jameson Annex in Sioux Falls, where four people tested positive in April.