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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A ’freedom fighter’ reports from the San Quentin prisons on Twitter, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a ruling made to protect elderly prisoners, and a class-action lawsuit seeks $400 million from the state of Delaware for ignoring basic COVID-19 precautions.

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.

In his Twitter bio, he describes himself as “Freedom fighter. Incarcerated human being reporting from inside of a prison with a contraband cell phone. Trapped in a petri dish.” As COVID-19 tore through California’s San Quentin prison in June, @RailroadUnderg1 documented the outbreak—alerting followers about its beginnings when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was denying there were any cases—and his own bout with the virus.

“‘Immune compromised’ taped onto the cell doors of the elderly people in here. I didnt have the heart to tell them that a sign isnt gonna stop the virus. #COVID19 #LockdownFailed,” he tweeted on June 23.

On July 8: “3 days of being curled into a ball fighting off the worse sickness of my life. The hardest part was having to tell my family and hearing them cry. If i didn’t have a cellphone they would’ve never known i was i sick.” And then on Sept. 5: “My greatest fear in prison is not knowing. Not knowing when I will make it home. Whether my parents will pass while im in prison. Now with #COVIDー19 in prison, its not knowing whens the next time I can shower. Or the next time i can order food or soap. This is an SOS.” 

This week, Okayplayer published a lengthy Q&A with @RailroadUnderg1, who has been in prison for more than three years. He says he “fought tooth and nail” to be transferred to San Quentin, which he describes as “the Harvard of prisons” because of the educational and job-training opportunities the prison traditionally offers. “You came here to change your life,” he told interviewer Tahir Asad. But all of those programs have been shut down since March.

He describes his experience with COVID-19 in detail, describing the physical and mental anguish it has caused. He lost two of his friends to the virus and another is currently hospitalized and in critical condition:

“They didn’t care that no matter how much work I’ve done to rehabilitate myself, how long I’ve been in prison already and how ready I am to come home, they would rather continue to profit off my body than release me to my family. I think that was the part that hurt me the most. I feel like my soul was hurt more than I was physically hurt when I caught COVID because it made me realize how little value my life had.”

Last week, federal Judge Keith Ellison ordered Texas corrections officials to enact basic protective measures to keep people in the Wallace Pack Unit safe from COVID-19. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the ruling, and, on Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals put a temporary halt on Ellison’s order while it reviews the case. 

In his 84-page ruling, Ellison accused prison officials of lying, ignoring the recommendations of health experts, and creating what Ellison described as a “human tragedy.” Testimony in a July trial included accounts of how disabled prisoners—blind, paralyzed, wheelchair-bound—were required to clean and sanitize their own dorms. One prison warden testified that a wheelchair-bound janitor “could put a broom against his neck and push it with a wheelchair.”

Since April, at least 505 people at the Houston-area prison for elderly inmates have tested positive for the virus and 19 have died.

➤ The Marshall Project’s Keri Blakinger and Joseph Neff found that between March and May, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) granted only 11 of nearly 11,000 requests for compassionate release due to COVID-19. “Time and again, the only way prisoners were able to win compassionate release was to take the bureau to court to fight the wardens’ denials,” they write. Among the people whose requests were denied was 56-year-old cancer patient Marie Neba. Neba, who had three children, was one of six women at the Carswell federal prison, in Ft. Worth, Texas, who died from COVID-19 amid an outbreak in July.

➤ Sixty-seven men incarcerated in Delaware’s Sussex Correctional Institution filed a federal class-action lawsuit this week, arguing that state officials failed to take necessary precautions to prevent an outbreak. More than 300 Sussex prisoners, about one-third of the population, contracted the virus and 12 died. The lawsuit demands that the state pay the men $400 million for inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.

➤ Massachusetts public defenders are calling for widespread coronavirus testing of people in state prisons and jails, WBUR reports. The demand comes after outbreaks at the Middleton Jail in Essex County, where 139 incarcerated people have tested positive, and the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center (MASAC), in Plymouth, where 28 incarcerated men and 11 employees also tested positive. The state’s Department of Correction told WBUR that they’ve engaged in “strategic testing,” which has turned up only five new cases in state prisons since July.

As part of our ongoing effort to track the coronavirus in jails, prisons, and juvenile-detention facilities, we’ve been mapping facilities that are currently reporting at least two active infections. (Hover your cursor over a dot to see the facility’s name.) Wisconsin continues to grapple with outbreaks in its prisons—the state’s Department of Corrections is currently reporting nearly 1,000 active cases and, this week, confirmed the deaths of two incarcerated people. But state officials refuse to say how many more have died. In Texas, 18 of the state’s 32 county jail systems are reporting at least three active cases of COVID-19, according to a tally by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The report, released Oct. 8, reveals that 570 people in Texas jails currently have COVID-19, with 313 tests pending, and more than 6,500 people have been quarantined as a precaution.