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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

Despite early warnings, jails and prisons have seen a rapid spread of the virus—a humanitarian disaster that puts all of our communities, and lives, at risk. Every day, The Appeal examines the scale of the crisis, numbers of infected and dead, around the nation.

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. On a daily basis 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. Find a daily update here from Thursday.

Advocates of criminal legal reform and public health experts have urged the release of incarcerated people to stem the spread of COVID-19 not just to improve safety and social distancing in jails and prisons but also because staff can carry the virus into the community at large. But according to a new report from the journal Health Affairs, the churn of people through jails could be a significant contributor to overall infection rates.

Researchers examined booking and release information from Chicago’s Cook County jail—which, in early April, had more COVID-19 infections than anywhere else in the U.S.—and used zip code level infection rate data in their analysis. 

“The data suggest that cycling through Cook County Jail alone is associated with 15.7 percent of all documented novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in Illinois and 15.9 percent in Chicago as of April 19, 2020,” the report says.

The report’s authors acknowledge the data’s limitations—without the name of each person diagnosed with COVID-19, it’s impossible to know that people released from jail drove high infection rates in certain zip codes—but note that they ruled out other factors that have been tied to high rates of infection, like race, poverty, public transit use, and population density. 

The report urges policymakers to take a closer look at the public health risks associated with jails. 

“Our findings support arguments for reduced reliance on incarceration and for related justice reforms both as emergency measures during the present pandemic and as sustained structural changes vital for future pandemic preparedness and public health.”

Food in prisons and jails is often, at best, inadequate (one Marshall Project story described starving prisoners “licking syrup packets”). At its worst, it’s rotten and contaminated

Virginia Public Radio reports that at least six state prisons have switched to “emergency menus” due to COVID-19 that include vending-machine food, rotten fruit and what one prisoner described as “meat rock.”

Another prisoner’s wife told reporter Sandy Hausman that her husband was healthy when he entered the prison, but now has high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Last month, the Prison Policy Initiative published a written—and illustrated—explainer on the challenges prisoners face in obtaining compassionate release. 

This week, the Minnesota Star-Tribune’s Matt McKinney wrote about the case of Mario Ariel Alvarado, a 21-year-old sentenced to 11 months in a federal minimum security prison in Duluth on one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. McKinney’s story said Alvarado had no criminal history prior to his federal case.

Alvarado has severe asthma and “relies on an inhaler daily,” McKinney reports. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a federal prison warden nevertheless opposed his parents’ request that he be released.

A federal judge sided with his parents and Alvarado was released on May 28 after serving three months. The judge was swayed by Alvarado’s lack of a criminal record, good behavior and plans to attend school and return to his job as a cook.

Alvarado’s is “one of 522 cases of compassionate release nationwide since passage of the 2018 First Step Act, a federal prison reform law that had bipartisan support in Congress,” McKinney writes

Alvarado’s release from Bureau of Prisons custody, however, is uncommon. Democratic lawmakers recently sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal asking for answers on procedures for transferring incarcerated people to home confinement during the COVID-19 crisis. “As President Trump’s associates are cleared for transfer, tens of thousands of low-risk, vulnerable individuals are serving their time in highly infected prisons. Lompoc FCI in California had the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the entire Bureau of Prisons, with over 900 inmates and 18 staff testing positive for the virus,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the Otero County Prison Facility, a private prison located 30 miles north of El Paso, has 254 confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses, with a spike in cases this week (116 reported Tuesday and 25 on Wednesday). 

On June 1, the facility reported the death of a 31-year-old man—New Mexico’s first prisoner to die COVID-19. Currently, four Otero prisoners are in the hospital and one is on a ventilator.

In an op-ed published last month—after the New Mexico Supreme Court denied their petition requesting prisoners’ early release— the ACLU warned that the state’s detention facilities were on a dangerous path: “Overcrowding, inadequate access to soap, and substandard healthcare in detention facilities create the perfect storm for coronavirus spread.

Also this afternoon, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in a case brought by the ACLU and New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, ordered state officials “to act as expeditiously as possible” to release people from state prisons. The ruling allows prisoners to advocate for their own release or seek the help of volunteer attorneys, mandates expedited review of release requests and requires the Department of Corrections to explain its denial of any request.

* The Massachusetts Department of Correction is reporting that it has met its goal of testing everyone in its custody (7,163 people) for COVID-19—some of them twice. As of Thursday, 390 incarcerated people had tested positive, though most have recovered. Only 50 have an active infection. 

* Arkansas’ Cummins Unit prison, which at one point was considered a COVID-19 hotspot, currently has only 11 active cases, according to a story today in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

* NME reports that Steven Avery from Netflix’s Making a Murderer—who’s currently housed at Wisconsin’s Waupun Correctional Institution—has tested positive for COVID-19. He’s one of 225 people at the prison who’s contracted the virus, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ most recent data. The DOC is roughly one-third of the way through testing all 21,700 people in its custody, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Thursday.

* This afternoon, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a preliminary injunction against The Pack Unit, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison, over its coronavirus practices.