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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A California appeals court orders San Quentin prison to reduce its population by half, the ACLU’s Death by Incarceration project paints a stark picture of COVID-19’s toll, and a new law grants early release to 3,000 New Jersey prisoners.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional health care 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.

After being denied parole in 2011 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, Ivan Von Staich fought back, filing lawsuit after lawsuit against the state of California. Von Staich filed so many lawsuits that he was deemed a “vexatious litigant” by San Francisco’s Superior Court—a person who repeatedly files lawsuits that lack merit. 

But a petition that Von Staich filed in May—alleging that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was unprepared for a COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin prison, where Von Staich is incarcerated—may result in the release or transfer of hundreds of prisoners.

When Von Staich filed his petition, there had been no known cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin. He foresaw that the prison’s multiple floors of tiny shared cells, which are connected by narrow walkways and fronted by bars that allow air to pass freely, would likely spur the transmission of the virus. “Protecting oneself from … covid-19 in this open cell is impossible,” he argued.

And, by mid-June, San Quentin was dealing with an outbreak that would eventually infect more than 2,300 incarcerated people and prison staff and cause 29 deaths. 

In a ruling issued yesterday, California’s First District Court of Appeal sided with Von Staich’s claim that corrections officials acted with deliberate indifference by refusing to release people from San Quentin and ignoring the urgent warnings of medical experts. The ruling describes the outbreak at San Quentin as “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history” and argues that the prison will remain “unsafe” until it reduces its population by half. 

The court recommends that CDCR begin its reduction by releasing people serving sentences for violent crimes “who are over age 60 and completed minimum terms of at least 25 years”—like Von Staich. But under current CDCR guidelines, anyone convicted of a violent crime is ineligible for early release, despite research showing that older prisoners who’ve served decades-long sentences are unlikely to reoffend. In an analysis of the ruling, Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings School of Law, notes that it will unlikely result in the immediate release of any prisoners.

The court’s ruling, however, includes a warning if CDCR fails to act: “Nevertheless we are not without means to expedite the release or transfer from San Quentin of more inmates than are now deemed eligible for release.” 

“As to petitioner Ivan Von Staich,” Aviram writes, “the Court has ordered his immediate release from San Quentin.”

In April, the ACLU launched Death by Incarceration, a database that would tally the number of people who’ve died from COVID-19 in prisons and jails. 

Nearly seven months into the project, the database is sparse, but not for lack of effort on the ACLU’s part. Publicly available information about these deaths is sparse. Some prison systems don’t release anything more than the date of death and the facility where the person was imprisoned. Wisconsin isn’t releasing any information at all.

“We are relying on a system that historically has not given us accurate or timely data,” Dylan Hayre, a justice division campaign strategist with the ACLU, told The Appeal. “The little bits of data we’re able to get paints a really, really stark picture. Imagine if we had full access.”

Crista Johnson, who oversees the Death by Incarceration project, said it’s important to continue to gather this data so that citizens and policy makers can better understand that the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic must include jails and prisons. The virus transmits, freely and rapidly, between correctional facilities and wider communities, so the public-health response must too. 

“We’re beginning to see media more generally shift away from this topic; we’re beginning to see policy makers kind of shift away from it and think that maybe this has been resolved, or that it’ll just kind of fade into the background, and the truth is that it won’t,” Hayre said. “It’s only going to get worse until we deal with this more forcefully.”

➤ On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that will allow the early release of more than 3,000 incarcerated people starting Nov. 4. The bill, S2519, awards up to eight months of sentence credits to anyone with a year or less left to serve who hasn’t been convicted for murder or rape. New Jersey’s prison system was hit early by the coronavirus, reporting 49 deaths by the end of June. The state still has the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths among all U.S. prison systems.

The judge who ruled last month that incarcerated people who submitted a tax return in 2018 or 2019 were entitled to receive a federal stimulus check has extended the deadline for filing a claim with the IRS to Nov. 4. The Washington Post’s Michelle Singletary writes that Judge Phyllis Hamilton extended the deadline after the Trump administration filed an unsuccessful appeal. Hamilton also ordered the IRS to mail blank 1040 forms to correctional institutions along with instructions for prisoners on how to fill out the paperwork. 

The number of people who’ve contracted COVID-19 in two Montana prisons increased over the weekend, according to the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC). Now, 50 people incarcerated in Montana State Prison have tested positive, up from 36 on Friday, and the Crossroads Correctional Center is now reporting 255 cases, up from Friday’s 239.