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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Documents obtained by the ACLU suggest that restarting executions caused a COVID-19 outbreak at a federal prison; Florida’s Brevard County jail says it quashed an outbreak, but a lack of testing raises questions; and San Quentin’s newspaper is publishing again.

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.

Documents obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request suggest that a recent COVID-19 outbreak at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex in Indiana was caused by a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staffer who was involved in preparations for the July 14 execution of Daniel Lewis Lee. 

On a form the employee completed after testing positive for the virus, he described his contact with staff and incarcerated persons as “a lot” and wrote that although he wore a mask while in contact with prisoners, he didn’t wear one while in contact with other staff. 

A subsequent “staff testing document” shows that the BOP tested only 22 staff members even though the infected correctional officer likely came in contact with twice as many people. Some staff declined testing, documents show. 

Two weeks before Lee’s execution, there were 11 positive cases among people incarcerated at Terre Haute FCC. By Sept. 18, that number had grown to 206. According to the BOP’s website, there are currently 58 active cases. The ACLU says that the BOP’s published case numbers are “likely a serious undercount.” Roughly 2,400 people are incarcerated in the Terre Haute prison, but the BOP has administered only 722 tests since March.

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, says the newly disclosed information “shows the total inadequacy of [the BOP’s] efforts to uncover COVID-19 infections among staff and prisoners—and why the true number of infections is likely much higher than the alarming number of cases reported on its website.” 

In July, the ACLU unsuccessfully urged the U.S. Department of Justice to postpone executions until after the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee’s was the first federal execution in 17 years, followed by Wesley Ira Purkey on July 16, Dustin Lee Honken on July 17, Lezmond Charles Mitchell on Aug. 26, and Keith Dwayne Nelson on Aug. 28. Two inmates at Terre Haute, William LeCroy and Christopher Vialva,  are scheduled to be executed this week.

Last month, a coronavirus outbreak infected 61 people at the Brevard County jail in Florida. On Sept. 16, Sheriff Wayne Ivey announced that all 61 people had recovered. So the jail might be free of confirmed COVID-19 cases for the moment, but a reporter with Florida Today struggled to get clear information about how officials plan to handle testing and case tracking going forward. 

When reporter Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon asked Corizon Health, the jail’s health-care services provider, about whether they had instituted a testing and tracing program, she was told only that Corizon performs contact tracing “per CDC guidelines.” Sassoon also had to push to get testing numbers, which revealed that only 63 tests had been conducted since early Aug. 6. Meanwhile, she reports, the jail’s population is creeping back up to pre-COVID levels.

* In an op-ed for the Gotham Gazette, New York City Councilmember Carline Rivera urges the city’s Department of Corrections to release more people from Rikers Island to allow for social distancing and prevent another major COVID-19 outbreak. While some media reports suggest that folks released in March and April went on to commit new crimes, “analyses show these early releases saw fewer repeat arrests than would be expected for normal release populations pre-covid,” Rivera writes. “Continuing to release people in DOC custody, while implementing policy solutions to reduce arrests overall, will save lives not just on the inside but in New York City as a whole.”

* An outbreak at a women’s prison in Pierre, South Dakota, could be due to a work-release program at the Governor’s mansion that restarted in July, the Rapid City Journal reports. A woman who was formerly incarcerated at the prison told reporter Arielle Zionts that a friend who was assigned to the mansion, where prison workers make 25 cents an hour, became very ill.  

* Amid a massive COVID-19 outbreak at California’s San Quentin prison in June and July, the San Quentin News suspended publication. Since 1940, the newspaper has been produced by people incarcerated at San Quentin and distributed to all California prisons. Bloomberg reports that the paper is publishing again, thanks to a $75,000 grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Newspaper alums are filling the pages until the prison’s incarcerated journalists are cleared to return to work.