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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says decarceration is the only way to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control; the CDC changes its testing guidelines after a Vermont prison guard contracts coronavirus; and our ongoing case map shows more than 60 new outbreaks.

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.

Nearly eight months after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the virus is still tearing through prisons and jails. In the last week alone, at least 60 correctional facilities reported new outbreaks. Incarcerated people are five times more likely to contract the virus than the general population and three times more likely to die from it.

Against this backdrop, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a committee of experts to examine COVID-19’s impact on correctional facilities. The resulting report, Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety, was released this week. It makes a number of recommendations for handling the virus in correctional settings;decarceration, the report concludes, is essential to saving lives and controlling the spread of the virus. Moreover: “Research on recidivism suggests that correctional authorities could decarcerate in a manner that would pose relatively little risk to public safety,” the report argues. 

Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-director of the school’s Justice Lab, co-authored the report. He spoke with The Appeal about its findings and recommendations. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

The Appeal: Many of the report’s recommendations are what we would hope prison systems would have already implemented to mitigate infections. Why are so many prison systems so far away from achieving the goals laid out in the report?

Bruce Western: Coronavirus presents a really hard problem, I think, because it makes public health the paramount concern inside prisons and jails. That’s a very different frame from the usual one of security. I think there’s been a vacuum of leadership in responding to coronavirus in general and it’s had all sorts of effects, including on the prison system. In many cases, a lot of correctional administrators simply didn’t have a great idea what to do and weren’t getting great guidance. The idea of decarceration—cutting your population so you can effectively do physical distancing and quarantining and cohorting and so on—there was no real voice for that sort of guidance. 

It seems like there’s little political support for decarceration. Does the committee feel that their recommendations will be implemented? 

We don’t speak directly to managing the political risk. But I think there are ways in the report to think about it. Decarceration, in the sense of the report, really means two things. It means diversion from the front end and release at the back end for people who are already incarcerated. At the front end, there are just enormous reservoirs of discretion to minimize incarceration. But right now, all of the switches are set to incarceration, all of the defaults are set to incarceration. There’s so much incarceration at the front end of the system before sentencing that’s really just sort of gratuitous and habituated, but that sort of luxury of cruelty, you don’t have that under a pandemic. 

On the back end, the way clemency and compassionate release is designed, it’s totally ill-equipped to meet the challenge of a public-health crisis because you have to be able to release people at scale. Medical criteria and medical vulnerability have to be a significant part of the release decision. Normally the original offense, which may be decades old, is revisited in trying to make the release decision. And so what we have is two sort of competing logics over incarceration. One idea is public safety, where the crime that someone committed decades ago is somehow relevant to the public-safety equation. But then, on the other side, we have people in poor health. They have chronic conditions; they’re very vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. There isn’t space in the way in which compassionate release and clemency is currently designed to fully take into account people’s medical vulnerability. And that, I think, requires a policy change and that will be slower. In a pandemic emergency, more weight has to be given to health conditions because you’re creating conditions that threaten public health more generally, and the health of incarcerated people. 

We’ve seen people get really angry when an outbreak in a prison or jail figures into a county’s overall case count. Yet, so often it’s a prison guard or other staff member bringing the virus into a facility. How do you drive home the fact that jails and wider communities are connected?

The pandemic doesn’t draw any distinction between who’s an incarcerated person and who’s a correctional officer. Everyone’s at risk of infection. The whole myth of mass incarceration is that we could somehow build all of these prisons and jails and disappear a whole segment of the population so we wouldn’t have to think about them anymore. But of course prisons and jails are deeply embedded in society and in communities, and the coronavirus has exposed all of the interconnections. This is a hundred percent the biggest challenge now, where the well-being of incarcerated people, who are among the most despised and dishonored faction of our society, is so intimately connected with the well-being of everyone. The public-health challenge is that we have to care desperately about the well-being of incarcerated people. And yet mass incarceration has been built on exactly the opposite—denying the well-being of people who are incarcerated. That’s a challenge, but I see the opportunity it presents as well. Until we get a handle on the problem of coronavirus in prisons or jails, it’s going to be very difficult to get a handle on the virus in society at large. 

One thing that’s been frustrating for a lot of people is getting the data on infections. The report addresses this—the challenge of really getting a grasp on this issue when we don’t truly know the numbers. 

The report has a strong recommendation on data transparency and I think it’s enormously important. It’s partly about accountability. It’s partly about equity. There are a lot of reasons to think that people of color are at a greater risk from the virus inside correctional settings than whites. We don’t know what the data say because that information hasn’t been released by any system, and so we’re completely in the dark on that key issue of equity. And then there’s the whole whole issue of COVID response and pandemic preparedness. Until you can monitor the spread of the virus in granular detail, understand its reproduction rate and how it’s being transmitted through the facility, it’s very difficult to combat it. You need the data in order to do that. 

So what do you do to really push these recommendations and hold people accountable? 

The next step is to really communicate our findings and engage the people who can really make a difference. That means people inside the justice system, police, prosecutors, and judges. A big piece is also trying to inform people who are outside of the system, particularly in the areas of health care and housing. There should be shared responsibility across systems. 

A year from now, do you think we’ll look back and see significant changes to incarceration as a result of COVID-19?  

I think that is one of the really big questions that looms over the whole crisis: Where are we going to be on the other side of this? Are we going to be more deeply entrenched in mass incarceration, trying to separate ourselves from people who we’ve historically marginalized and demonized? Or will the virus reveal to us the reality of our interconnected lives? That’s a key question. We’re at a crossroads. I feel we’re on a knife’s edge: Will we have sort of a breakthrough and retreat from incarceration as the solution to every problem that’s related to poverty and racial injustice in this country? Or will we dig deeper into the hole of mass incarceration? I think we’re balanced right on that knife’s edge right now. 

North Carolina Health News reporter Hannah Critchfield examines why a third of all  COVID-19-related deaths in the state’s prisons have happened in the last month. North Carolina prisons remain crowded, she writes, and prison officials have scaled back testing while continuing to transfer people between facilities. “New outbreaks have been found at [North Carolina] prisons every week since mass testing of all inmates ended on Aug. 8, according to court filings,” she writes.

At least 72 people incarcerated at the Cecil County Detention Center in Elkton, Maryland, and 16 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks. The outbreak is the largest in a Maryland prison or jail since the start of the pandemic, the Baltimore Sun reports.

The case of a Vermont prison guard who contracted COVID-19 after 22 short encounters— roughly 17 minutes of total exposure time—with six prisoners has prompted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to change its definition of “close contact” with an infected person. Previously, the CDC considered 15 minutes of exposure to be a “close contact.” Now, multiple exposures that add up to 15 minutes trigger the need to be tested. The Vermont case also raises questions about the efficacy of protective gear. While the six prisoners were wearing microfiber cloth masks for some of the interactions, the guard reported wearing a microfiber cloth mask, a gown, and goggles.

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. (We also remove dots for places that are now reporting no active cases of the virus.) If you take a look at the New York Times’ map showing coronavirus hotspots, you’ll notice how closely it aligns with our map, underscoring the interconnectedness of prisons and jails and their surrounding communities.