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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

New Jersey is close to enacting a law that would release up to 3,000 people from prison, advocates urge New York legislators to consider early parole for elderly prisoners, and California prisons see a new spike in coronavirus cases.

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.

New Jersey’s prison system was hit early by the coronavirus, reporting 42 deaths by mid-May. Seven more people died by the end of June, leaving New Jersey prisons with the highest rate of deaths among all U.S. prison systems.

The death toll spurred several state legislators to author a bill that could free up to 3,000 people, or roughly one-fifth of the prison population. The bill, S2519, awards up to eight months in sentence credits to anyone with a year or less left to serve. Although, anyone imprisoned for murder or rape is ineligible. 

The aim of the bill is to release enough people to allow for social distancing in prisons should New Jersey be hit with another wave of coronavirus cases. An investigation by found that prison officials were at fault for letting the first outbreak get out of control with inadequate testing policies and overcrowding: “They packed quarantined prisoners in buses and stacked them in bunk beds inside trailers, not knowing whether they were infected,” reporters S.P. Sullivan, Blake Nelson, and Joe Atmonavage wrote.

On Thursday, the state House voted to approve the bill and the senate, which had supported an earlier version of the bill, approved the amended version. It now awaits the governor’s signature.  

Also this week, in neighboring New York, a panel that included formerly incarcerated people urged lawmakers on the state Senate’s Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction Committee to do more to reduce the prison population before flu season or another outbreak of COVID-19.

In her story on the hearing, Hudson Valley 360 reporter Kate Liss quoted Maurice Wilcox, who’d served time in multiple New York prisons.  

“Staying 6 feet apart is almost impossible to do,” he told the panel. “I’ve been to all the facilities — it’s just impossible.”

At a press conference prior to the hearing, Jose Saldana from Release Aging People from Prison urged lawmakers to pass the Elder Parole bill, which would allow the Board of Parole to evaluate anyone over 55 who’s served at least 15 years in prison for possible release. 

“Legislate for the most vulnerable people,” Saldana said.

Research shows that the number of elderly people in prison has spiked in the last two decades; many of them committed a violent crime at a young age and are often ineligible for early release consideration. Furthermore, research shows that the risk of reoffending decreases with age. According to a November 2015 study published by the Center for Justice at Columbia University, “people aged 50 and older present the lowest risk of committing a new crime” regardless of their prior conviction offense.

Common Dreams published an essay on Tuesday by Ifoma Modibo Kambon, who’s incarcerated at California’s Folsom State Prison where, since early August, 1,203 people—more than half of the prison’s population—have tested positive for COVID-19.

Kambon writes that in the early days of the outbreak, correctional officers ignored prisoners’ obvious symptoms: “…[S]hortness of breath, muscle pain, coughing, loss of a sense of smell or taste. They were simply dismissed and thrown back into their cages.”

Kambon has recovered from contracting the virus, but he writes that the experience “reaffirmed for me that our lives simply don’t matter.” 

As the Appeal reported last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation cleared out part of neighboring Folsom Women’s Facility to make space for men from Folsom prison who’d been infected by COVID-19. Currently, more than 280 men have been transferred to the women’s building. 

Folsom Prison currently has more active cases of COVID-19 than any other California prison.  In a blog post published on Tuesday, Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, who’s been monitoring outbreaks at California prisons, noted the “alarming” increase in infections since the beginning of the month. She writes that there appears to be a correlation between county outbreaks and prison outbreaks.

“As I’ve explained before,” she writes, “we’re not telling an airtight causal story here. All we are doing is dispelling the notion that locking people up is somehow keeping the surrounding county safe.”

The Lens reports that the New Orleans jail is seeing its largest spike in COVID-19 cases since May, with 76 prisoners and 23 staff testing positive. A press release from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office described infected detainees as being asymptomatic. “How exactly the jail is defining ‘symptomatic,’ however, is not entirely clear,” writes reporter Nicholas Chrastil. 

➤ Natalie Portman, Joaquin Phoenix, Mahershala Ali, and more than a dozen other TV and movie actors participated in a new PSA campaign called #SuingtoSaveLives. Launched on Thursday by JusticeLA and Reform L.A. Jails, the campaign features the actors reading declarations submitted by incarcerated plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In those declarations, plaintiffs describe filthy living conditions, a lack of testing, and persistent negligence by medical and correctional staff that have contributed to the spread of COVID-19.  

A new study by researchers at Stanford and Yale finds that the coronavirus has spread faster in U.S. prisons and jails than it did on the Diamond Princess cruise ship or in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic started. Researchers worked with a large urban jail—which is not named in the study—finding that the virus spread 3.6 times faster there than aboard the cruise ship and 4 times faster than in Wuhan.

➤ The ACLU wants the Virginia Department of Corrections to bring in outside experts to evaluate the department’s response to COVID-19. Earlier this week, the ACLU sent a notice of noncompliance to state officials. “VDOC is medically neglecting the people in its care and isn’t doing nearly enough to release people who are eligible under the early release program,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, in a Sept. 24 statement. 

As part of our ongoing effort to track coronavirus in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities, we’ve been mapping facilities reporting at least two infections since July 26. (Hover your cursor over a dot to see the facility’s name.) New outbreaks this week include the Children’s Village juvenile detention center near Detroit, where a young woman was jailed in May for not doing her homework, and the federal prison in Hazelton, West Virginia. In recent weeks, the union representing the prison’s correctional officers has been warning that an outbreak could occur because the U.S. Marshals Service, which transfers federal prisoners, refuses to follow testing protocols.