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.
A new report by researchers with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security and Center for Public Health and Human Rights has a dire warning for the U.S. carceral system: make changes now or face more COVID-19 outbreaks in the future.
“The current system and operations of facilities of incarceration are not able to protect incarcerated individuals from COVID-19,” the report says. “Changes are urgently needed to diminish the risk of transmission and provide the standard of care to those who have been infected with this disease.”
Many recommendations in the 33-page report, released Thursday, echo what experts have been saying since the start of the pandemic: State and county leaders need to reduce jail and prison populations with a focus on releasing medically vulnerable people. The report also urges officials to “incorporate the defendant’s COVID-related health risks into decisions related to incarceration, bail, sentencing, and release.”
Some recommendations in the report were spurred by media accounts of jail and prison systems refusing to provide accurate testing data or to make public a facility’s prevention and management plans.
“Mandate that all facilities report testing schedules and results for incarcerated individuals and staff,” researchers urge. “Require correctional facility administrators to make their plans for prevention and management of COVID-19 in their institutions publicly available, as the San Francisco sheriff’s department and others have done.”
Because the virus spreads in poorly ventilated areas, the report also urges jails and prisons to provide incarcerated people with as much outdoor time as possible and to avoid quarantining people in a way that mirrors punitive solitary confinement. There have been numerous reports about people being confined to cells or dorm-style areas for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes longer, without access to recreational time, showers, or phone calls.
In a statement that accompanied the report’s release, co-author Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security, said jails and prisons need to think, and act, like public-health systems.
“I hope that not only can we address this during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we can make some systemic changes going forward to make these facilities safer and to be more judicious when we’re incarcerating people,” she said.
Amid reports of rising infection rates in nearly every state, prisons and jails that have gone weeks, even months, with no new cases of COVID-19 are now reporting significant outbreaks. At the Greene County Correctional Facility in upstate New York, at least 94 incarcerated people and 13 staff members have tested positive for the virus. In Connecticut, the Hartford Correctional Center is on lockdown after more than 50 people tested positive for COVID-19 —an outbreak that started with two jail employees.
At the Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City, Colorado, widespread testing conducted last week revealed that 74 prisoners and 13 staff members have contracted the virus. Not all test results are back, the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Lance Benzel reports, and corrections officials expect the number of infections to increase.
Since April 2, more than 2,600 people in Wisconsin prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. Half of those infections have occurred in the last three weeks alone. The outbreaks have hit six prisons in the lower eastern part of the state, near Green Bay and Milwaukee.
While the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC) has been transparent about the number of cases in its facilities, it’s refused to release information about deaths, prompting the state’s ACLU to file a public-records request this week, asking WDOC to “provide information about the number of incarcerated people who have been hospitalized or died due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the state’s prisons.” The request also seeks information about policies related to quarantining, testing, and the availability of masks.
Wisconsin’s WLUK spoke to a woman whose son is at Dodge Correctional Institution, in Waupun, where 241 people have tested positive for the virus. The woman said prisoners weren’t being told whether they’d tested positive for COVID-19 and symptomatic people weren’t being provided with medical care.
A WDOC spokesperson told WLUK that its health-care workers are “committed to their patients, that inmates are generally informed if they’ve tested positive, and that at facilities with large outbreaks, all inmates are treated as if they’ve been exposed to the virus.”
➤ Nickolas Lee was the third person to die from COVID-19 in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Only 42 years old, Lee died alone in a hospital on April 12. His wife, schoolteacher Cassandra Greer-Lee, has since become an advocate working on behalf of incarcerated people. She collaborated with the Coalition to End Money Bail, Chicago artists, and the advocacy organization Zealous to create “132 Calls,” a three-part video series. Narrated by Greer-Lee, black-and-white illustrations capture her desperate attempts to get help for her husband; according to phone records, she called the jail 132 times.
➤ The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has made permanent the temporary halt it placed last week on a federal judge’s order that Texas corrections officials needed to do more to protect elderly prisoners in the Wallace Pack Unit. While the three-judge panel agreed that “the pandemic inflicted a dreadful toll at the Pack Unit,” it also found that “[m]ercifully, positive cases of COVID-19 have plummeted sharply…. The [Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s] preventive measures are working, belatedly abating what had been a perfect storm.” The judges determined that the plaintiffs hadn’t exhausted all possible administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit.
The ruling the appeals court overturned was a scathing 85-page indictment of how Texas prison officials handled an outbreak at the Pack Unit, which ultimately killed 19 people. The judge, Keith Ellison, accused prison officials of lying, ignoring health experts’ recommendations, and creating what he described as a “human tragedy.”
➤ Up until this month, there had been only four cases of COVID-19 in Utah prisons. Last week, an outbreak at the state prison in Draper infected more than 200 people, though prison officials said they’d managed to confine it to one cell block. This week, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the virus had jumped to a second prison block, infecting at least 78 more people and prompting a protest by family members who shared stories from jailed loved ones about lapses in medical care and unsanitary conditions.
➤ Also in Utah, at the Weber County Jail, a prisoner who tested positive for the virus in July has tested positive again, confirming the potential for reinfection.
As part of our ongoing effort to track the coronavirus in jails, prisons, and juvenile-detention facilities, each week, we map out corrections facilities that are currently reporting at least two active infections. (Hover your cursor over a dot to see the facility’s name.) This week, we removed several dots for places that are now reporting no active cases of the virus. But new outbreaks prevailed—this week’s map includes roughly 40 more dots than last week, representing outbreaks in every type of facility we’ve been tracking.