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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A ruling by a Texas judge slams officials for deliberate indifference toward vulnerable prisoners; in San Diego, an ill-advised hospital visit led to a massive COVID-19 outbreak; and a new report finds an alarming increase of Latinx and Native American youth in juvenile-detention facilities.

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.

Proving to judges that a prison has shown “deliberate indifference” to the medical needs of incarcerated people is typically a high bar—amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many lawsuits have tried and failed to make this claim. But in a ruling issued yesterday in a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of men incarcerated in the Wallace Pack Unit, a geriatric prison outside of Houston, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison found clear evidence that prison officials showed a reckless disregard for the people in their care.

The ruling follows an 18-day trial, held in July, and takes into account evidence submitted by the plaintiffs’ attorneys after the trial. That evidence includes a photograph showing that the red tape that the prison had added to the floors to prove to the judge they were enforcing social distancing was removed after the trial.

Throughout the 84-page ruling, Ellison calls into question the veracity of claims made by prison officials, citing text messages and emails that show a failure to enact even the most basic precautions, like refusing to provide masks to prisoners under 65. Even an expert hired by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) criticized the “staged” visits that made it seem like the prison was taking steps to prevent virus transmission when it was in fact doing the exact opposite. 

Page after page of Ellison’s ruling describes, in troubling detail, what the judge called a “human tragedy”: a 50-person dorm with one toilet and no hot water; guards refusing to provide inmate janitors with basic cleaning supplies; showers filled with bloody bandages, used razors, and dirty diapers; and people who’d tested positive for the virus being forced to remain in dorms with people who’d tested negative.

The prison requires disabled prisoners to clean and sanitize their own dorms. Marvin Jones, who is wheelchair-bound and unable to hold anything in his right hand, described in his testimony how he struggled to mop the floor. Harold Dove, who also requires the aid of a wheelchair, is legally blind and paralyzed on his right side, but was nevertheless assigned to janitorial duties. One of the prison’s wardens testified that a wheelchair-bound janitor “could put a broom against his neck and push it with a wheelchair.”

When the lawsuit was filed in March, there had been no cases of COVID-19 at the prison. The first person to test positive was Leonard Clerkly, who died on April 13 from viral pneumonia. A month later, 32 people tested positive. To date, at least 505 Pack Unit prisoners have tested positive for the virus. And since Clerkly’s death, 18 more people have succumbed to COVID-19. For comparison, in the year 2019, 11 Pack Unit prisoners died from natural causes. 

“The Court acknowledges that Defendants have taken a number of steps to address the spread of COVID-19, including initial consultations with medical experts and the adoption and implementation of Policy B-14.52 at the Pack Unit,” Ellison wrote. “But the Court views these measures as the most basic steps that TDCJ could have taken to prevent mass death within the prison walls on an unimaginable scale.”

The judge ordered TDCJ to implement more than a dozen measures to prevent further cases of coronavirus, including providing “unrestricted” access to soap and clean towels, creating a comprehensive testing program with a turnaround time of two days or less, providing janitors with sufficient cleaning supplies and protective gear, and conducting regular audits to ensure these measures are being followed TDCJ says it plans to appeal Ellisons’ ruling. 

The Metropolitan Correctional Center, San Diego (MCC), a federal jail, hadn’t reported any cases of coronavirus until Eric Selio, one of more than 550 people incarcerated in the downtown jail, went to the hospital for a simple procedure. Hospital staff had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince MCC medical staff to do the procedure at the jail to minimize Selio’s risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“COVID don’t take a break,” Selio told Voice of San Diego’s Maya Srikrishnan in an interview from the jail. He contracted the virus, which quickly spread throughout the 23-story facility, ultimately infecting 395 incarcerated people, including a pregnant woman, and 20 staff members. One man, 47-year-old Victor Cruz, who was imprisoned on a drug offense, died. 

Selio recovered, but he contracted the virus a second time after being housed with people who were sick. Srikrishnan spoke to multiple people at the jail, as well as family members of inmates, who all expressed concern over lapses in safety protocols. 

Thankfully, cases in the jail have declined significantly over the last three weeks. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website, 18 people incarcerated in MCC and 13 staff members currently have active cases of COVID-19. A spokesman refused to tell Shrikrishnan how many people had been hospitalized. 

In early August, a group of lawmakers, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, introduced the COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act, which will require operators of prisons and jails to collect and publicly report comprehensive data on COVID-19 testing, infections, and deaths—including the number of people hospitalized due to the virus.

In March and April, the number of young people held in juvenile-detention facilities fell sharply, then plateaued, according to a new survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In August, youth facilities reported COVID-19 cases at a rate three-and-a-half times higher than cases among the general United States population. The survey also found that while white youth continue to be released at a higher rate than other groups, detention of Latinx and Native American youth has increased. 

South Carolina’s Island Packet newspaper checked in on a federal prison in Estill that was heavily damaged by an April 13 tornado. People in the prison’s main complex were transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania, while minimum-security prisoners were moved into Estill’s medium-security building. The difference is “night and day,” one man told reporter Jake Shore. The leaky building is infested with toxic black mold, prisoners said, adding to existing fear of a COVID-19 outbreak. One prisoner described the mold as “bubbling up” from the walls. The prison has yet to report a positive case of coronavirus, though only 28 people have been tested, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  

In an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Montclair State University professors Tarika Daftary-Kapur and Tina Zottoli urge lawmakers and corrections officials to consider releasing “juvenile lifers”—people sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were under 18. Daftary-Kapur and Zottoli recently conducted a study of 174 juvenile lifers who had been resentenced and released in Philadelphia. Only two committed new crimes, both minor offenses. “…[A]s we are in the throes of a national debate over releasing inmates to reduce the risk of COVID transmission, it is necessary for policymakers to be informed by the best science, which tells us individuals who committed crimes as juveniles and are now in their 40s and 50s pose a negligible risk to society,” they write.