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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

A judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking the release of seriously ill prisoners from a facility that is now dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak; despite nationwide calls to shrink prison populations through sentencing reform, only one Election Day ballot measure seeks to tackle the issue; partying corrections officers are blamed for an outbreak at a North Carolina jail.

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 past several months, The Appeal has been examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails. Read recent posts.

On May 4, when the ACLU of New Jersey petitioned a federal judge to grant the release of medically vulnerable people from the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, there were 40 cases of COVID-19 in the facility. Despite declarations from several people incarcerated there, describing debilitating health issues and unsanitary conditions at the prison, on May 27 U.S. District Judge Renee Marie Bumb granted the government’s motion to dismiss the case. In her opinion, Bumb wrote that it seemed as though prison officials had the virus under control. 

Cases at Fort Dix did eventually decline—40 was the peak—and disappear until early October. Since then, the infection rate has steadily increased. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is reporting 58 active cases at the prison, but family members told Burlington County Times reporter George Woolston that they believe the number is actually higher.

Woolston’s Oct. 29 story mentions Troy Wragg, a 38-year-old with epilepsy who’s serving a two-decade sentence for conspiracy and wire and securities fraud. 

Wragg was a petitioner in the ACLU case. When he submitted a declaration to the court in late April, he’d already applied for compassionate release three times. All of his requests were denied. Three of Wragg’s cellmates recently tested positive for the virus, his wife told Woolston, including the man who normally pushes Wragg’s wheelchair.

In his declaration, submitted April 28, Wragg described debilitating seizures that have left him with broken bones and confined to a wheelchair. The seizures wouldn’t be so bad, he wrote, if the prison provided him with the prescribed dosage of his medication; instead he’s forced to ration what medicine he does receive.

“When I have seizures at night, the sound of my bed shaking wakes one of my bunkmates. He

jumps down and holds my head to prevent a concussion, and monitors me throughout the episode to make sure I don’t die,” Wragg wrote. 

Wragg and eight other men share a 430-square-foot room that’s supposed to hold 12. If he were released, Wragg wrote, he’d have a “safe and stable home environment” with his wife and access to care from his cardiologist, neurologists, and psychiatrist.

We have virtually no cleaning supplies,” he wrote of the prison in his declaration. “We are not provided any towels to wipe surfaces down and have to use the four small rolls of toilet paper, which shred easily, given out once a month. Some people use toilet paper they buy off commissary, but many commissary items are often out of stock.”

His wife, Megan Hallet Wragg, told Woolston that sick prisoners were being quarantined on a floor that isn’t wheelchair accessible. She fears that if her husband contracted the virus, he’d be placed into isolation. 

“I’m afraid it would be fatal for him,” she said.

Despite persistent calls by experts to reduce prison and jail populations to mitigate COVID-19 outbreaks, there is only one measure on the November ballot addressing sentencing reform: Oklahoma’s State Question 805. (In California, Proposition 20, if passed, will reverse sentencing reforms.) 

Under Oklahoma’s current law, prosecutors and judges can use prior convictions in sentencing decisions, even for nonviolent crimes. State Question 805 would prohibit prosecutors from seeking sentence enhancements for people who’ve committed only nonviolent felonies. It would also allow people serving time on an enhanced sentence to petition the court for a sentence reduction.  

“There are literally thousands of people in prison for 17 years for shoplifting a laptop from a Best Buy. There’s a guy who got 22 years for taking a lawnmower out of someone’s shed,” Taylor Pendergrass, a senior campaign strategist for the ACLU, told The Appeal. 

An analysis of the ballot measure shows that it could reduce Oklahoma’s prison population by 8.5 percent over the next decade, “not an insignificant amount for a single policy and very much one part of an overall solution,” Pendergrass said.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, there are currently 16,965 people in state-run prisons. Gov. Kevin Stitt granted clemency to 452 people in early April, but more than half of the state’s 22 correctional facilities are at or near capacity and nine have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks of 200 or more cases.

➤ Public-health officials in Cumberland County, North Carolina, are blaming a coronavirus outbreak at the county jail on a recent barbecue and Halloween party where photos show corrections officers not wearing masks. Several officers in the photos later tested positive and at least one was infected when he escorted a prisoner, who later tested positive.

➤ The American Prospect’s Marcia Brown takes a look at the use of solitary confinement to separate prisoners who’ve been infected with coronavirus. “Prior to the pandemic, the use of solitary confinement was trending downward,” Brown writes. “An estimated 60,000 people were in segregation in state or federal prisons before the pandemic, but that number has ballooned to nearly 300,000. With the third wave beginning and the possibility that people could be re-infected, the perils of solitary confinement grow.”

Incarcerated journalists Kevin Sawyer and Juan Haines (a contributor to The Appeal), write in  The Guardian about a recent mock Presidential election at California’s San Quentin prison, where Haines is a senior editor for the San Quentin News and Sawyer is the associate editor. Their votes might not officially count, but the massive COVID-19 outbreak in June that put the prison on lockdown for months gave the exercise particular significance. Sadly, 1,600 mock ballots mailed to the prison by the organization Solitary Watch were never distributed, so organizers had to improvise. Read the story to find out who won.

In two New York state prisons, the number of COVID-19 cases have spiked in recent weeks. At the Elmira Correctional Facility, at least 242 people have tested positive for the virus, and at the Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, 137 people have tested positive. Three men incarcerated at Greene shared their stories with the Marshall Project. Jermaine Archer, who contracted COVID-19 in mid-October, was quarantined in a solitary-confinement cell. “They strip-searched me, did a cavity search, and they took my personal property,” Archer said. “I had nothing to read, and I didn’t get the mandatory one hour for recreation outside in the fresh air. I was in a large, empty cell filled with stale air and a hospital-style light on me all day. Anybody could mentally break from this because you’re being punished because of your medical condition.”

As part of our ongoing effort to track the coronavirus in jails, prisons, and juvenile-detention centers, 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. This week’s map includes 44 new outbreaks, roughly one-third of them jails, and most clustered in areas that are also seeing a rise in infections among the un-incarcerated population.