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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A new report documents pandemic-driven efforts to release people from Chicago’s Cook County jail, how Virginia’s 900-page COVID-19 response plan has failed elderly and ill prisoners and federal prosecutors argue that a life sentence equals a death sentence.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A new report documents pandemic-driven efforts to release people from Chicago’s Cook County jail, how Virginia’s 900-page COVID-19 response plan has failed elderly and ill prisoners and federal prosecutors argue that a life sentence equals a death sentence.


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.


Askia Asmar, a 67-year-old man incarcerated in Virginia’s Deerfield Correctional Center, has lung and liver cancer, diabetes and hepatitis C, yet his repeated requests for medical care have gone ignored. According to a statement Asmar provided to the ACLU of Virginia as part of an ongoing lawsuit, despite his extensive comorbidities, he was placed in a unit with a COVID-19 outbreak and tested positive for the virus. 

Asmar is eligible for parole in December, but yet remains imprisoned.

Deerfield houses the state’s most vulnerable prisoners in its assisted-living unit, and corrections officials have come under fire for not doing more to prevent an outbreak that started two weeks ago. Roughly 85 percent of the prison’s population has tested positive for COVID-19 and 14 men have died from the virus. 

In a Sept. 23 press release, the Virginia Department of Corrections insisted that it’s got the situation at Deerfield under control and pointed to a 900-page pandemic response plan as evidence. The following day, the ACLU responded, arguing that corrections officials have failed to comply with the provisions of a May 12 settlement agreement in a class-action lawsuit filed in April on behalf of people in Virginia prisons. 

“…[I]nfection rates at VDOC facilities have now begun to soar,” ACLU attorneys wrote in a notice of noncompliance filed with the court on Sept. 22. “Despite these rapidly rising infection rates, Defendants have failed to identify additional staff or resources that can be dedicated to expediting the review of high-risk individuals eligible for the Early Release Program. The bottleneck in their review process continues, as the approval rate steadily declines with each passing week.” 

According to a tracker on the ACLU’s website, out of 1,483 people reviewed for early release since May 12, only 551 requests have been granted.


On March 13,, more than 100 civil-rights groups published an open letter, urging corrections officials to release people being held on bail in Chicago’s Cook County jail, especially those at high risk of complications from the virus.

“It is not a matter of if coronavirus and COVID-19 infect [the Cook County Jail] but when,” the letter says.  

Two infections reported on March 23 grew to 200 and ultimately 1,189. On April 8, the New York Times described the jail as “the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections.”

A new report by the Coalition to End Money Bail tells the story of how advocates scrambled to get as many incarcerated people as possible released from the jail, first through a bail fund and then by pushing judges to hold bail-review hearings. 

So far, more than 1,400 people have been released. But the releases have not been equal. Between March 17 and May 9, the number of Black people incarcerated in the Cook County Jail dropped by 27 percent, the number of Latinx people dropped by 29 percent, and the number of white people dropped by 42 percent.

Furthermore, the report notes that the jail’s population is creeping back up toward pre-pandemic levels. With the start of flu season and experts predicting another wave of coronavirus, the report indicates, “This large number of people makes the jail again highly vulnerable to another COVID-19 outbreak.” 

Matthew McLoughlin, director of programs for the Chicago Community Bond Fund said that since April, “There has not been any movement towards a mass review of bonds.”

Bail reform has been a difficult subject in Chicago. In 2017, Cook County Chief Judge

Timothy Evans ordered judges to set bail at an amount a person can afford. Two years after he issued the order, Evans released a study showing no measurable increase in crime. A February 2020 investigation by the Chicago Tribune poked holes in Evans’ methodology, but a subsequent study concluded that reported crimes had actually fallen in Cook County since bail reform was implemented.

“We would argue that bond reform has actually made our communities safer by helping ensure that thousands of people did not lose their jobs, housing, or custody of their children due to pretrial incarceration,” McLoughlin told The Appeal. “We also believe that bond reform saved lives. Had Cook County not taken these steps, several thousand more people would have been incarcerated in the jail at the height of the pandemic.”


In last Wednesday’s post, we linked to a powerful piece written by incarcerated journalist John J. Lennon, who described his experience with COVID-19 in New York’s Sing Sing Prison. NPR reporter Noel King followed up with Lennon on Friday and pressed him to say more about his experience with the virus. His case was mild, he said, but added, “I think it’s anxiety that mostly gets you.” Prison air is already stale; add in a virus that impacts one’s ability to breathe and “it’s like a torture chamber,” Lennon told King. 

Reason’s C.J. Ciaramella writes about Atilano Dominguez, an 80-year-old man serving a life sentence in a Florida federal prison for marijuana offenses. Dominguez’s attorneys argued he should be granted compassionate release due to his age and underlying health issues. Federal prosecutors agreed Dominguez was at high risk of dying from COVID-19, Ciaramella writes, but argued that “the existence of one more way to perish in prison … does not alter the appropriateness of the Defendant’s incarceration.” A judge disagreed and granted Dominguez’s release.

Alex Sakariassen with Kaiser Health News looks at Montana’s success at keeping COVID-19 out of its prisons—and the costs of those successes for the state’s county jails, at least three of which have experienced significant outbreaks. Jail officials have blamed the outbreaks on the overcrowding that’s resulted from prisons putting a halt on transfers. Sakariassen’s story opens with Joshua Martz, who tested positive for COVID-19 at the Cascade County Detention Center in Great Falls. Martz was squeezed into a pod with nine other people, all of whom received little medical attention. “None of us expected to be treated like we were in a hospital, like we’re a paying customer,” he said. “But we also thought we should have been treated with respect.”