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, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of 66 incarcerated people, Willamette Week’s Tess Riski reports. Ten were approved for release after being identified as vulnerable to death or serious complications from COVID-19. The other 56 were within two months of their release date.
Since the start of the pandemic, Brown has commuted the sentences of 123 people—far short of the 5,800 people state prison officials said would need to be released to allow for social distancing or the 2,000 people Oregon lawmakers proposed releasing in July.
According to the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), since the start of the pandemic, 993 people in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 and nine have died. According to ODOC’s patient tracker, the two prisons with the largest outbreaks—Snake River Correctional Institution and Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution—have both seen a recent uptick in new infections.
On Thursday, U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, announced the launch of an interactive dashboard with data on COVID-19 cases, deaths, and testing results in correctional facilities managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The dashboard includes a section showing how cases in BOP facilities relate to trends in surrounding communities. In a video statement, Horowitz described coronavirus as “one of the most immediate challenges to DOJ operations.”
Bureau of Prisons facilities have seen some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic and the department has been criticized for lacking a coherent virus response plan.
Last week, Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, along with several members of the House, sent a letter to Horowitz expressing concerns about the BOP’s handling of outbreaks at two Virginia federal prisons. The letter describes complaints that their offices have received about “deteriorating health and safety conditions,” including a lack of protective gear for incarcerated people and prison staff, harsh lockdown rules, and prisoners being served spoiled food.
➤ The director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Annette Chambers-Smith, said in a press briefing this week that her department is using wastewater testing at state prisons to try to detect COVID-19 prior to an outbreak. Research has shown that wastewater surveillance can detect the virus in a community before anyone shows symptoms.
➤ The Indiana Women’s Prison is reporting several new cases of COVID-19 and has placed 22 women in quarantine, Side Effects Media’s Jake Harper writes. In July, Harper wrote about harsh lockdown conditions at the Indianapolis prison, where women were forced to spend hours in their cells with no access to toilets or running water.
➤ In an op-ed for The Nevada Current, Macy Haverda, co-director for the state’s ACLU, writes that some people locked up in Nevada prisons are seeing up to 80 percent of their inmate accounts garnished according to Marsy’s Law, a 2018 ballot initiative that guarantees restitution for crime victims. But the family members who fund these accounts are the ones paying the price. “While more and more incarcerated individuals are trying to avoid chow halls because of the pandemic, many families are trying to keep their loved ones safe in an environment ripe for the spread of COVID-19 by sending extra money for commissary items,” writes Haverda, whose uncle is in a Nevada prison. Under the garnishment policy, families would need to send $15 to cover the cost of a 4-ounce can of tuna. For denture grip paste, they’d need to send $39, and for four rolls of toilet paper, $18.
As part of our ongoing effort to track the 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 Neal Unit prison in Texas, which is currently experiencing the largest outbreak among U.S. corrections facilities, with more than 1,000 incarcerated people and 51 staff members testing positive for the virus. (ABC 7 Amarillo has a story on the outbreak.) In Georgia, nearly every prison is reporting active cases of COVID-19, including Pulaski Women’s Facility. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Christian Boone spoke to several people familiar with conditions in the prison, which one person described as “medieval.”