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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Despite early warnings, jails and prisons have seen a rapid spread of the virus—a humanitarian disaster that puts all of our communities, and lives, at risk. Every day, The Appeal examines the scale of the crisis, numbers of infected and dead, around the nation.

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. On a daily basis 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. Find daily updates here from Monday and Tuesday.

News reports about living conditions inside jails and prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic have painted strikingly different—but accurate—portraits. There are overcrowded, dorm-style living units driving infections in places like California’s Chuckawalla State Prison, which currently has the most active COVID-19 infections in California (816) and is 31.5 percent over capacity, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

Then there are prisons that have housed detainees in isolation via lockdowns meant to stop the spread of infection. For her story in Tuesday’s Boston Globe, reporter Ainslie Cromer spoke to Patricia Olsen, who’s currently housed at MCI Framingham. Prior to the pandemic, Olsen could attend church, go to her job as a digitizer for Massachusetts Correctional Industries and spend time with her friends.

“Now, it’s like prison within prison,” Olsen told Cromer. 

“On April 4, the state’s Department of Correction placed all 16 DOC facilities on lockdown to quell the coronavirus outbreak, keeping prisoners in their cells or dorms for 23 hours a day,” Cromer reports.

But even those measures haven’t stopped the virus from entering the facility, where, Cromer writes, as of May 1, 85 prisoners and 14 staff tested positive, “making the facility a COVID-19 hotspot, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts’s Data for Justice Project.”

At Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in Oregon, prisoners are refusing testing because it could land them in one of the Department of Corrections’ COVID-quarantine units, writes Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Lauren Drake and Conrad Wilson. 

“There, they worry they could be largely confined to a solitary cell and lose the few privileges they currently have,” they write. 

A correctional officer told Drake and Wilson that  “there isn’t a single inmate at Shutter Creek who can taste or smell right now,” symptoms indicating a COVID-19 infection. 

In a piece for Law360, Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, urged correctional authorities to ensure that quarantines aren’t punitive. He points to Louisiana’s Department of Corrections—which has moved people from parish jails to Camp J, “a solitary confinement wing of the Angola prison that was closed in 2008 amid abysmal conditions”—as an example of a poor approach.

“Prisons and jails must implement strategies beyond quarantining and medical isolation to reduce the casualties from COVID-19 for those who are incarcerated, correctional staff, and the communities around these facilities,” Levin writes. Expedited releases, enhanced sanitation protocols, separating only infected populations, and the use of technology like electronic tablets to ensure educational programming can continue and making sure all prisoners get sufficient recreational time are some of the measures he recommends.  

In addition to using lockdown to prevent the spread of infections, many prisons have stopped taking transfers, raising the question of how COVID-19 is getting into the facilities. Alison Hardy, a senior staff attorney with the Prison Law Office, which is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on behalf of medically vulnerable prisoners, told The Appeal that correctional officers are likely the source of infections in several California prisons. 

For a recent story, Mother Jones reporter Samantha Michaels looked at Cummins Unit prison in Arkansas—the eighth largest COVID-19 cluster in the U.S., according to the New York Times’ infection tracker—where guards who’ve tested positive are allowed to work if they’re asymptomatic.

“The Arkansas Department of Corrections, facing a lawsuit about prison conditions during the pandemic, told a court that due to a severe staff shortage, correctional officers who are currently infected are permitted to clock in at certain prisons as long as they are asymptomatic and wear a face mask,” Michaels writes.

A DOC spokesperson told Michaels that the department was following CDC guidelines for “critical infrastructure workers,” and that asymptomatic workers can keep working “after ‘potential exposure to COVID-19.’” 

A CDC spokesperson told Michaels that no such guideline existed and that staff who test positive should be self-isolating until they’re cleared by a doctor to return to work.  

This afternoon, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported the deaths of two more prisoners from California Institution for Men in San Bernardino County. Both died in outside hospitals. “The exact causes of death have not yet been determined,” spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement. “These are the 11th and 12th COVID-related deaths at the institution.”