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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

How a collaboration between scholars, public health officials, and the Wayne County jail has kept COVID-19 in check; the California prison with the most coronavirus cases kept prisoners working despite the outbreaks; two counties report spikes in infections among juvenile detainees.

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.

Detroit’s Wayne County jail was an early coronavirus hotspot. Over three weeks, starting in late March, the jail’s commander, two doctors, and a sheriff’s deputy all succumbed to the virus, which ultimately infected more than 300 people, most of them employees. 

Researchers from Wayne State University’s Center for Behavioral Health and Justice, who had already worked with the jail on programs for mentally ill and drug-addicted prisoners, approached the sheriff’s department and county officials about working on a mitigation plan and toolkit.

The goal was clear, said the center’s director, Brad Ray: “How do we do this right? We don’t want anyone else to die.”

The first step was to implement a testing program, but WellPath, the jail’s contracted healthcare provider, argued it was outside the scope of their contract. In May, the Michigan Justice Fund provided emergency funding to test everyone in the jail. To ensure testing could continue, county officials obtained a judge’s order and the county’s public-health department hired two disease-intervention strategists to conduct testing and contract tracing in the jail.

The goal is to test everyone booked into the jail. If someone initially refuses a test, they’re placed into quarantine. A disease-intervention strategist documents the reason for refusing the test and follows up with the person a few hours or a day later to see if they’ve changed their mind; each person is promised a paper copy of test results. According to a report that accompanies the toolkit, the jail “has been able to reach 100% compliance with testing.”

Ray and his team plan to present the tool kit, which also includes recommendations for staff testing and discharge planning, to other Michigan jails.

“Clearly reducing the jail population is the number one thing you can do to mitigate it,” Ray told The Appeal. “I heard things like, ‘It’s a waste of time, they’re all going to lie to you.” Jail churn was another barrier to contact tracing—many people leave the jail before they get their test results. So Ray and his team set up a system for the disease intervention strategists to do contact tracing during intake via a simple form. None of the information on the form is shared with law enforcement. 

“If a test came back positive, we’d have this information,” Ray said. “We’ve had pretty good success with the contact tracing.” 

Since the toolkit’s been implemented, only about 1 percent of the jail’s population has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Ray and his team plan to present the tool kit, which also includes recommendations for staff testing and discharge planning, to other Michigan jails. 

Tyler Logan, a project coordinator with the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice, who worked on the toolkit, said collaboration between jails and county public-health departments is key to keeping COVID-19 in check.

“Because relationships have been established between key systems, Wayne County is better positioned to handle future public-health emergencies and outbreaks,” Tyler said.

In California, prisoners can work in factories that, in normal times, produce things like furniture, textiles, and road signs, and pay workers pennies an hour for their labor. During the coronavirus pandemic, the L.A. Times’ Kiera Feldman reports, California kept its prison factories running.

“The factories brought together inmates who were housed in different units, heightening the risk of spreading the virus to other areas inside the prisons,” Feldman writes.

Feldman details how the furniture factory at Avenal State Prison was repeatedly shut down and reopened amid COVID-19 outbreaks. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Avenal has seen at least four major spikes in infections since mid-May. Nearly 3,000 people at the prison, which currently houses 3,500 and is 20 percent over capacity, have contracted the virus—more than at any other California prison. 

Since Sept. 29, six children incarcerated at the Fairfax (Virginia) Juvenile Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19. The Washington Post’s Justin Jouvenal reports that Fairfax County officials didn’t publicly disclose the outbreak until three staff members contacted him to express concern that kids weren’t being provided with masks and that classes at the facility continued after the outbreak. Two of the staff members told Jouvenal that one child was hospitalized.

Half of the 32 children at Bay Pines Center, a juvenile-detention facility in Escanaba, Mich., and 13 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. The children are being quarantined in their rooms. “If they leave their rooms, they must wear an N-95 mask, a face shield, a gown and gloves,” writes WLUC reporter Kendall Bunch.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of people have been released from New York’s Rikers Island, yet the jail’s use of solitary confinement has increased. Over the first six months of 2020, roughly 13 percent of the 7,200 people incarcerated at Rikers Island spent time in solitary confinement, a higher percentage than each of the last three years, New York Times reporter Jan Ransom found. The union representing Rikers Island’s corrections officers told Ransom that more people at the jail are getting into fights and need to be punished. But research shows that solitary confinement does little to curb violent behavior. According to a 2019 report, “A Blueprint for Ending Solitary Confinement in NYC Jails,” a more effective approach is to provide opportunities for “intensive human engagement and programs to address the reasons for the separation and prevent future violence or harm.”