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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. 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.

According to the Covid Prison Project, an online database maintained by a group of public-health researchers, since April 22, there’s been a 281 percent increase in COVID-19 deaths among state prisoners. Data on jails, which are run by counties, can be harder to come by, except for some larger facilities, like Chicago’s Cook County jail, which is where our first post starts. Two months after the jail reported that two people in custody had tested positive for COVID-19 — a number that would grow to more than 350 prisoners and staff in just two weeks — the Chicago Tribune is reporting that the jail’s medical director, Dr. Connie Mennella, says they have a handle on the disease: “We’re past flattening,” she told reporter Annie Sweeney. “We’re in prevention and containment.” 

But the virus has taken its toll: more than 700 people incarcerated in the Cook County jail have fallen ill (106 still have the virus, according to the jail’s most recent numbers) and seven died. Currently, 49 of the jail’s staff have COVID-19 and two have died from the virus. 

The Chicago Tribune story says that civil rights attorneys who’ve sued the jail in federal court over its COVID-19 response aren’t swayed by Mennella’s statement. 

As of May 27, of 7 of the top 10 COVID-19 clusters in the U.S. are correctional facilities.

Elsewhere, dozens of jails and prisons are still struggling to control outbreaks. Here’s just a snapshot:

  • As of May 26, more than 3,300 people in 18 of Michigan’s 29 prisons had tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 62 had died. (The Michigan Department of Corrections has beenusing Medium to post updates; the page includes a section titled “Remembering Prisoners who have Passed,” though names have been withheld.)
  • Florida’s Blackwater Correctional Facility, operated by private prison company GEO Group, currently has more than 1,000 prisoners in medical quarantine. South Bay Correctional Facility, also operated by Geo Group, has placed 1,153 prisoners in quarantine. Six people incarcerated at Blackwater have died and 36 South Bay staff have contracted the virus. In a story published earlier this month,the Tampa Bay Times noted that Blackwater has long been subject to outside scrutiny and “fell under a harsh spotlight when it was revealed that all five of the first — and at the time only Florida inmates to succumb to COVID-19 — were incarcerated there.”
  • At the Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers, Connecticut,146 asymptomatic prisoners tested positive, forcing the facility into lockdown. A nurse at the prison told the Hartford Courant that the lack of protective gear, combined with medical staff shortages and the inability of people in custody to keep a safe distance from one another, led to a “perfect storm.”
  • On Tuesday, the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 69 prisoners deaths (COVID-19 is listed as the “probable” cause in another two) — an increase of three over the weekend and the highest death count of any other state prison system.
  • On Tuesday, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections reported 440 current positives, with 80 at Louisiana State Penitentiary, 148 at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women – Hunt, and 160 at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women – Jetson.
  • The novel coronavirus is surging in rural areas, according to The Washington Post, regions of the country that are particularly ill-equipped to handle a sudden spike of acutely ill patients, a recent report from The Justice Collaborative Institute detailed (The Appeal is an editorially independent project of the Justice Collaborative). “Of the 25 rural counties with the highest per capita case rates, 20 have a meatpacking plant or prison where the virus took hold and spread with abandon, then leaped into the community when workers took it home.” On Tuesday, Charlottesville’s C-Ville Weekly,  wrote about conditions in the Dillwyn Correctional Center and Buckingham Correctional Center, which are located across the street from one another. Buckingham County has a total population of only 17,148 and the two prisons’ more than 300 combined cases have resulted in the county having the highest rate of infection in the state.

Ohio is one of at least two states whose prisons will resume accepting transfers this week. The other is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In late March, CDCR released 3,500 older and medically vulnerable prisoners — a fraction of the state’s pre-COVID population of more than 123,000 — and has mostly been able to keep COVID-19 out of its facilities, though two of have been hit hard. The California Institution for Men, located in the city of Chino, roughly 40 miles east of Los Angeles, reported Tuesday that 456 people in its custody have active cases of COVID-19; nine have died, three of them over the weekend. The cases at the prison alone account for nearly two-thirds of the city’s COVID-19 diagnoses. Avenal State Prison in Central California has nearly 200 active cases and the California Institute for Women in Corona has 126 active cases.

The three California prisons are relatively isolated and CDCR canceled in-person visits weeks ago, raising the question of how the virus made it into the facilities. As of Tuesday, 262 CDCR staff had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a department update. Also on Tuesday, the department announced it would begin mandatory testing of all employees at the California Institution for Men and Avenal State Prison.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included incorrect information about the number of COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths in the Cook County jail. A total of 350 prisoners and staff have tested positive (the article originally said 350 prisoners tested positive), 49 jail staff (not 69) currently have COVID-19 and two, not three, jail staff have lost their lives.