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A ‘Ticking Time Bomb’: How The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Impacting American Prisons

Advocates are urging public officials to ensure safer, more sanitary conditions in the nation's prisons and jails and release more non-violent inmates as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the U.S.

By Jill Sederstrom
What Are Conditions Like In Prisons During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

As coronavirus tightens its grip on the country, more Americans are staying home to keep safe, but for an estimated 2.2 million Americans incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails, social distancing may not be an option.

Coronavirus has already begun to infect America’s prison system and jails — where inmates are often kept in close quarters and have limited access to cleaning and sanitary supplies — and the number of infected is only expected to grow in the weeks ahead.

Many states have begun making moves to release some inmates early to alleviate overcrowding concerns and protect the most vulnerable people housed behind bars. But across the country, prisoners have also begun to speak out about the conditions inside jails and prisons, with one inmate fearing it could become a “mass grave site” if officials didn’t step in to do more, according to ABC News.

“My thing for the outside world is, help. Help. Help for the overcrowding, help for the sanitary purposes, help for a release mechanism,” one Alabama prisoner told the news outlet. “We need to release some of these people, we need help.”

Laura Nirider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, told Oxygen.com that the conditions within the country’s prisons and jails are like a “petri dish,” ripe for rampant disease.

“People are living in beds sometimes as close as three feet apart. Many prisons have limited access to hot water, sanitizers, cleaning products, those kinds of things. So, on your best day, prisons are places that are really conducive to the spread of viral illnesses,” she said.

Add in the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19, and it creates “public health hazards waiting to happen,” she said.

Impacts On Corrections Facilities Across The Nation

Each day the number of inmates and staff members within the corrections systems with COVID-19 continues to grow.

As of Sunday, New York City Department of Corrections told Oxygen.com that 273 incarcerated inmates at city jails had tested positive for COVID-19, while an additional 321 staff members were also confirmed to have the virus.

Riker’s Island had its first death from coronavirus earlier this week, 53-year-old Michael Tyson, according to his legal team.

Tyson’s attorneys said he was being held at Rikers for an alleged parole violation when he died, CBS News reports.

On a national level, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported Wednesday that there were 253 federal inmates and 73 staff members nationwide who had tested positive for the disease. To date, there have been eight federal inmate deaths.

The country’s largest jail — Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois — has been hit particularly hard by the disease. There are 401 positive cases of COVID-19 connected to the facility, according to recent data published by The New York Times.

“I personally have been working closely with Cook County in Chicago, Illinois and Harris County,” Alec Karakatsanis, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Civil Rights Corps, told Oxygen.com on Saturday. “Last night, we filed an emergency civil rights lawsuit on behalf of thousands of people in the Cook County Jail. In Cook County Jail in Chicago, the infection rate is now about 55 times the infection rate of the general U.S. population.”

Karakatsanis said the virus is “spreading like wildfire” inside the jail and has become “a ticking time bomb.”

Oxygen.com reached out to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, but did not receive a response as of publication.

A massive outbreak not only poses a public health concern for the people behind bars, but Karakatsanis said it also becomes a major concern for the general public because each day “many dozens and sometimes hundreds of people” go in and out of the facilities, including jail guards, nurses, doctors, and other corrections staff.

“If we allow one site to become infected to the point where it's spreading like wildfire, that will then trigger another outbreak in the surrounding community,” Karakatsanis said.

Conditions Within The Facilities

COVID-19 is a particular concern in prisons and jails because of the large number of people living in close proximity to one another and lack of cleaning and sanitary supplies.

“Socially distancing is not possible in prisons. It’s simply not possible. Cells are stacked on top of each other. States like California where overcrowding is an issue, the beds are as close as three feet apart,” Nirider said.

Inmates often don’t have access to basics necessary to prevent the spread of disease including hot water, cleaning supplies, and disinfectants.

For the last 13 years, Nirider has represented Brendan Dassey, an inmate whose case was featured in the popular Netflix docuseries “Making a Murderer.”

She said Dassey is one of the “lucky” ones because he is currently being held in a medium security institution and has access to hot water and soap — but the fear is still very real.

“Thank God Brendan is still healthy,” she said. “He says he’s washing his hands 25 times a day, which seems like good advice to me, but we’re re-approaching the governor of Wisconsin to ask him again to exercise his clemency powers.”

Karakatsanis called the fear and isolation from family members an “incredibly difficult moment” for many of his clients.

“Imagine what it would be like if you were trapped with many other people in a room where you had to watch people going to the bathroom, couldn’t wash their hands, you don’t have a mask to protect yourself, you don’t have alcohol or soap or hand sanitizer,” he said. “You’re in an environment where you have no control over your own body or your own wellbeing.”

Jason Flom, an Innocence Project board member and host of the Wrongful Convictions podcast, told Oxygen.com that inmates also come in regular, daily, contact with others — making them even more susceptible to spreading disease.

“There is no way to pat somebody down at a safe distance,” he said. “In many of these places, they don’t have masks, they don’t have gloves. There are instances of institutions, correctional institutions, where guards have been sent back to work after testing positive without the appropriate safety equipment and thereby naturally infecting large percentages of the population. So, we need to urgently provide sanitizers, provide masks, and gloves and above all we need to de-carcerate.”

Officials at prisons and jails across the country say they have taken measures to protect inmates and staff during the pandemic.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) said in a recent news release that staff members will now be subject to “mandatory verbal and temperature screenings” before they are allowed to enter the state institutions.

In addition, CDCR has suspended prisoner intake from county jails, suspended visitation, suspended access for volunteers and rehabilitative program providers, and reduced the number of inmates using common spaces at the same time.

“We do not take these new measures lightly. Our first commitment at CDCR is ensuring safety – of our staff, of the incarcerated population, of others inside our institutions, and of the community at large,” said CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz. “However, in the face of a global pandemic, we must consider the risk of COVID-19 infection as a grave threat to safety, too.”

If an inmate does test positive for COVID-19, officials said they will follow the recommendations for quarantines set by the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Patients with confirmed COVID-19 will be continuously assessed and monitored by institution medical staff,” the CDCR’s website said. “When possible, the patient will be assigned dedicated health care staff to provide care and their movements to different parts of the institution will be limited to decrease the risk of staff spreading COVID-19 to other parts of the facility.”

The Federal Bureaus of Prisons also instituted a “comprehensive management approach that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures” that are being implemented in all federal prison institutions.

Emery Nelson, with the BOP’s Office of Public Affairs, told Oxygen.com in a written statement that the agency has been preparing for COVID-19 since January.

“The BOP is taking aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff, and inmates, as well as visitors and members of the public,” Nelson said. “Our nationwide plan allows for the transfer of resources to any institution within our system if necessary.”

As part of its efforts, the BOP instituted a five-phase action plan that includes securing inmates in every institution to their cell or quarters for a 14-day period to reduce the spread of the illness. Inmates will still have access to mental health services, education, soap, and other supplies and will be able to gather in limited groups for commissary, laundry, shower, and telephone “to the extent practical.”  

“In addition, the Bureau is coordinating with the United States Marshals Service (USMS) to significantly decrease incoming movement during this time,” the BOP wrote in a release outlining the plan.

Releasing Prisoners Early

Corrections departments have also started to release select groups of prisoners early — but some social justice advocates believe prison systems could be doing even more.

According to Flom, approximately 20,000 people have been released across the country in response to the pandemic.

“It varies state by state,” he said Saturday. “Today we learned that the Kentucky governor is freeing around 900 people.”

The CDRC estimates that about 3,500 incarcerated prisoners will be eligible for an expedited transition to parole in California. The state plans to focus on those with less than 60 days to serve on their sentence.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in late March that he had ordered the release of 1,100 people who were being jailed for technical parole violations, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer or failing a urine test.

“For example, we're releasing people who are in jails because they violated parole for non-serious reasons. And wherever we can get people out of jails, out of prisons, now we are,” Cuomo said at the time in a statement, according to NBC News.

Nirider said most early release efforts are currently focusing on low-level, non-violent offenders, those who are within a few months of their release date, the elderly population, and juveniles.

As more inmates are released, some agencies are even turning to unconventional solutions to keep both the newly released inmate and the public safe.

In California, two Oakland hotels near the airport are being used to house homeless people who have been released from jails and prisons, according to The Marshall Project.

“We are doing things that we’ve never done before,” Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office in Alameda County told the news outlet. “The reason for the decision is to save lives—there’s no doubt about that. We’re up against a clock.”

But even with the efforts by corrections departments and state, local, and federal officials, Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy officer at REFORM Alliance and co-founder of #cut50, told Oxygen.com governors across the country could be doing more.

She believes more need to be considering options like home confinement and compassionate release as the coronavirus continues to spread.

“It’s terrifying that we have not seen a stronger reaction from our government officials,” she said. “It’s like people inside our prisons and jails are being completely discounted. Their welfare doesn’t matter to our lawmakers because they’re in there for committing a crime.”

Social justice advocates also say the pandemic could be an opportunity to reconsider the incarceration practices within the United States.

“In this country there are about 12 million people who are placed in metal chains and taken away from their schools, and homes and families and communities and jobs and so we have 3,163 jails around the country and those are places (with) revolving doors. People are coming in and out of them every single day,” Karakatsanis said.

The vast majority of the people, he said, are housed in jail and prison systems for non-violent offenses. Many are also often struggling with mental health or addiction issues.

“What we’re advocating for all across the country is to use this moment as a moment to step back and say we need to be thinking about all of these issues together as medical, mental health and public health issues,” he said.

Stephanie Gomulka contributed to this report. 

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