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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Experts discuss ongoing issues with COVID-19 in prisons and jails, Oklahoma prison officials agree to mandatory testing of all staff, and an incarcerated journalist pens a heart-wrenching account of his experience with coronavirus.

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.

Earlier this week, experts on COVID-19 in prisons and jails convened via Zoom to discuss incarceration amid the pandemic. The event was hosted by the Sing Sing Prison Museum

Here are a few takeaways:

There should be more focus on the long-term health effects of COVID-19 for incarcerated people: Correctional departments’ online case trackers often show how many people have “recovered” from the virus. But those numbers fall short of telling the full story, said physician and corrections health-care expert Homer Venters. Venters has met with hundreds of incarcerated people who no longer have COVID-19, but are still suffering from persistent effects of the virus. “But the way that our health systems are set up in jails and prisons, there’s very little or no documentation,” he said. Venters said this presents a challenge for correctional facilities, which rarely have systems in place for tracking and treating chronic health conditions. 

Early releases from prisons and jails have not caused an increase in crime: According to UCLA Law School’s Covid Behind Bars Data Project, prison and jail populations have shrunk by roughly 120,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic. The fact that this hasn’t led to a measurable increase in crime proves that the U.S. incarcerates too many people, argued civil rights attorney Roy Austin. “What we’re seeing is we just don’t have to lock up as many people as we have been,” he said. “Hopefully that will be the lasting lesson we take from all this.” Panelists agreed that prisons and jails need to get to—and remain—below capacity.

Medical quarantine should look very different from solitary confinement: Brie Williams, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and the director of the prison health-care reform project Amend, said correctional facilities need to develop clear guidelines that distinguish medical isolation and quarantine from solitary confinement. Incarcerated people in numerous prisons and jails have described lockdown conditions that verge on punitive. “It undermines the ability for the prison or jail to control the pandemic because people aren’t truthful about their symptoms,” Williams said. 

Incarcerated people and their families must be included in discussions about reform: Panelists emphasized the need for corrections officials to listen to the folks who know the system best—the people living in it. “Correctional system leadership has to be partnering with incarcerated people and their family members,” Brie Williams said. Chazidy Bowman, who heads the group Ohio Prisoner’s Justice League, described her frustration when documented evidence of lapses in policy are ignored by prison officials. (Ohio’s Marion and Pickaway correctional institutions are ranked third and fourth in the New York Times’ list of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S.) Bowman said she worries that prevention fatigue is setting in and, with flu season coming up, viral outbreaks in prisons will become the norm. “Covid will always be in our communities as long as it’s in our prisons,” she said.

Eight Oklahoma prisons have been designated “hot spots” by the state. For facilities with celled housing, this means at least 20 percent of the population has tested positive for COVID-19. (Facilities with open dorm-style housing are considered hot spots if at least 15 percent of the population tests positive.) One of the hot spots is Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility in Taft, Okla., where nearly every woman incarcerated there has tested positive. At the Oklahoma State Reformatory, nearly 75 percent of incarcerated people and 38 staff members have tested positive

Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) announced that employees at hot spot prisons will get an extra $2 an hour in pay. But advocates for incarcerated people, public-health experts, and Democrats in the state’s House of Representatives want more: mandatory testing of all corrections employees, who are bringing the virus into prisons. 

At a press conference on Tuesday, ODOC chief of operations, Scott Crow, announced that his department believes it’s figured out how to overcome legal hurdles that made mandatory testing difficult, Tulsa Public Radio’s Chris Polansky reports. “[W]e now have the framework in place… to ensure that we can confidently do [testing], and that’s our plan moving forward.” Crow also said that “hot spot” facilities would receive additional resources and be subject to an action plan aimed at containing the virus. 

* In early June, when Raul Covarrubias tested positive for coronavirus in the Santa Clara (Calif.) County jail, he was initially moved into a small cell “with what looked like rodent feces,” Covarrubias told San Jose Spotlight reporter Katie Lauer. Then he was moved to the jail’s crowded infirmary, where he was forced to bathe with a sock and a bucket of water. “Tylenol, cough syrup, and cough drops were the only medical respite provided, sometimes not until after midnight,” Lauer writes. Jail officials told Lauer that people diagnosed with COVID-19 now get designated shower times—no more buckets. After an outbreak that infected 178 people, the jail is now reporting only one positive case. 

* In the Los Angeles Daily News, Elizabeth Marcellino reports that the L.A. County jail population is back up to 13,280 after hitting a low of 11,723 in May. “The total puts the county back over the system’s state-rated capacity of 12,404,” Marcellino writes. 

* Incarcerated journalist John J. Lennon wrote a powerful account about his experience with COVID-19 in Sing Sing prison for New York Magazine. Here’s an excerpt: “Lying on my cell bed, I sipped water and felt the cool liquid flow through my feverish body. Fighting off hallucinations of becoming a coronavirus statistic, I thought about how I could have caught COVID. It could have been the interview I did with NPR on the phone in the yard a week earlier, in a caged dugout area where 23 of us use phones that are 18 inches apart, chest to back. Here’s the irony—I may have contracted coronavirus while telling the nation about the coronavirus spreading in our prison.”