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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

COVID-19 has exposed a huge gap in knowledge over the rights of hospitalized prisoners, Wisconsin sees a spike in new cases in correctional facilities, and vitamin D might help save the lives of incarcerated people.

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.

Before Tiffani Fortney’s father, Scott Cutting, went to prison, she would talk to him on the phone everyday. In January 2020, Cutting was sentenced to 26 months at Terminal Island federal prison, in Los Angeles, Calif., for tax fraud, forcing father and daughter to scale back the calls to once a week.

When they talked on Easter Sunday this year, Cutting mentioned that someone at the prison had tested positive for COVID-19. 

“I told him, ‘Dad, please be careful,’” Fortney told The Appeal. Cutting assured his daughter that he’d be fine. It was the last time they’d talk. Terminal Island, which held 200 more people than it was designed for, experienced one of the earliest and largest coronavirus outbreaks among federal prisons, resulting in more than 596 infections and 10 deaths. 

Scott Cutting, who was 70, was hospitalized on April 13, but no one notified Fortney or her brother, also named Scott, for two weeks, despite the siblings’ frantic phone calls to the prison trying to find out why they hadn’t heard from their father.

Fortney’s brother finally heard from the prison on April 29. The caller told him he needed to sign a do not resuscitate (DNR) order because his father was on a ventilator and wasn’t expected to survive. A prison doctor called Fortney the following day and told her the same thing. The doctor would not share any information about her father’s condition or where he was hospitalized. 

Brie Williams, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and the director of the prison health-care reform project Amend, said COVID-19 has exposed a significant gap in knowledge among doctors and prison officials over the rights of incarcerated patients and their families. 

“The opportunity for these patients to say goodbye to their loved ones, to have their rights respected, really hinges on doctors and other health-care professionals in the community safeguarding their patient’s rights and human rights at the end of life,” she said.

Amend has put together a guide for medical professionals about the rights of incarcerated patients, and, last week, Williams and Leah Rorvig, a physician who’s also part of Amend, held a webinar on the topic. 

“Doctors really have to go outside of their comfort zone to advocate for their incarcerated patients,” Rorvig said. “It’s a big ask on physicians.”

Rorvig and Williams said they’ve heard countless stories about incarcerated patients being denied the care to which they’re legally entitled, such as the right to designate someone to make medical decisions on their behalf. If a person is incapacitated, prison officials are obligated to help the hospital locate a next-of-kin. If there’s no next-of-kin, it’s up to the hospital’s ethics committee, not the prison, to make medical decisions for the patient. 

Incarcerated patients are also entitled to all the same services as other patients. Rorvig said she’d heard from social workers and chaplains who have been told that they couldn’t visit with an incarcerated patient.

In Scott Cutting’s case, his daughter got in touch with Brianna Mircheff, a federal public defender, who filed an emergency motion in court that ultimately allowed Fortney and her brother to talk to her father’s doctor and get enough information to feel comfortable signing the DNR. While the Bureau of Federal Prisons fought the siblings’ request for a video visit with their dad, Fortney said they were able to say goodbye to him via phone with the help of one of his nurses.  

“We told him it was OK to go, and he could go be with our mom,” who died 25 years ago. Scott Cutting died an hour after the phone call with his kids.

Two months later, Fortney’s brother, who had struggled with bi-polar disorder and was overwhelmed by his father’s death, died by suicide. The website Mourning Our Losses, which memorializes people who’ve died from COVID-19 in prisons, jails, and immigration detention facilities, included a tribute to Scott on his father’s memorial page

Mircheff said she’s working to educate other attorneys about the rights of incarcerated patients. “It seems like this problem is not going away anytime soon,” she said. “It terrifies me—the cases we’re not hearing about.”

The Lens reports that, in at least one instance in July, a correctional officer used pepper spray on COVID-19 patients inside the Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail for New Orleans. Reporter Nicholas Chrastil spoke to people who either witnessed the incident or were hit by the spray and left “coughing in their cells as their calls for fresh air went unanswered.”

As part of an ongoing lawsuit over conditions in one of its jails, the Alameda (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department created a “Covid Compliance Unit” to make sure staff members follow the rules enacted to prevent virus outbreaks. But Kara Janssen, one of the attorneys who sued the Sheriff’s Department, told KTVU reporter Lisa Fernandez that a recent uptick in the jail’s population could undermine the compliance unit’s efforts. “If they run out of space, we will see more outbreaks,” Janssen said.

➤ Wisconsin prisons are struggling with a surge in COVID-19 cases. According to a dashboard maintained by the state’s Department of Corrections, 903 incarcerated people have active cases of COVID-19. The high number is largely due to recent outbreaks at two correctional facilities, Kettle Moraine, located near Sheboygan (431 cases), and the Oshkosh Correctional Institution (337 cases), which holds most of the state’s elderly prisoners. Gretchen Schuldt, executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, told the Wisconsin Examiner that the outbreaks signaled “a huge failure” on the part of Gov. Tony Evers for not releasing more people from prison.  

In many prisons and jails, outdoor time is limited—it’s not uncommon for urban jails to have no outdoor space at all. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that incarcerated people lack sufficient levels of vitamin D. Savannah Morning News reporter Mary Landers writes about a Georgia doctor, Maulik Patel, who says COVID-19 patients from Coastal State Prison “were probably the sickest individuals” he’s treated—and all of them had low levels of vitamin D. Patel is urging prisons to provide vitamin D supplements, which he believes will help reduce the severity of the virus. He plans to publish his findings in a peer-reviewed medical journal.