‘Much worse than a cruise ship’: Prisoners’ lives at risk from COVID-19

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More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. That’s more people than there are living in major U.S. cities like Phoenix and Philadelphia.

They’re particularly vulnerable to health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. They live in close-quarters. Many are elderly or pregnant. Many also have pre-existing medical conditions that put them at higher risk for serious complications from the respiratory disease.

Prison reform advocates are pushing for swift actions to protect inmates and employees. They want officials to take urgent steps, like releasing elderly and otherwise vulnerable prisoners, ensuring that sanitation supplies are available and eliminating medical co-pays for prisoners. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Nevada is one of three states that hasn’t suspended medical co-payments for incarcerated individuals during the health crisis.

“We locked these folks up and it’s our job not to let anything bad happen to them,” said Emily Galvin-Almanza, executive director of Partners for Justice.

Some actions to safeguard inmates and prison employees have been taken by federal, state and local officials, but advocates are warning the moves aren’t sufficient. And they fear that officials won’t act swiftly enough to save lives.

“It’s difficult to have an issue like this gain public traction when everybody is affected by this pandemic,” said Ed Chung, vice president of criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress. “That’s the enduring challenge of criminal justice reform issues like this, to get the public not to look at people who are incarcerated as those who should be dealt with last.”

Galvin-Almanza and David Mills, a senior lecturer at Stanford Law School, penned an op-ed in Business Insider warning that tens of thousands of people who pass through U.S. jails and prisons could die from COVID-19.

Incarcerated people “face a much higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 than they would on the outside — and behind bars, infection is more likely to be a death sentence,” they wrote.

The ACLU of Nevada, along with Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, NAACP, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal and Arriba Las Vegas Work Center, have also called on state and local officials to protect incarcerated people during the health crisis.

The groups sent a letter to Gov. Steve Sisolak March 27 outlining specific actions the state should take concerning its jail and prison population that include:

  • Limiting arrests to only the most serious offenses.
  • Ensuring at-risk people are not kept in jail absent extraordinary circumstances.
  • Releasing people who couldn’t afford bail
  • Suspending the payment of fines and fees.
  • Waiving the Nevada Department of Correction’s co-pay fee charged to incarcerated people seeking medical care.
  • Making phone calls, video calls and e-mails free for incarcerated people.
  • Gov. Sisolak should grant immediate commutations to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, to anyone currently being held on a technical (crimeless) supervision violation, and to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years.

‘This is life or death’ 

Members of Congress are pushing the Trump administration to do more to limit the pandemic’s spread in prisons.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of a Judiciary subcommittee, sent Attorney General William Barr a letter on March 30 asking the Justice Department to “use every tool at your disposal to release as many prisoners as possible, to protect them from COVID-19.”

A bipartisan group of senators also asked Barr and the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons to consider using their authority to quickly transfer non-violent offenders facing significant medical risks to home confinement.

Barr issued a memo in late March urging the Bureau of Prisons to reduce the populations by sending some prisoners home, but said many prisoners would be safer in federal facilities, Politico reported.

“It was very tempting to get excited” when Barr issued that memo, said Galvin-Almanza. But the process laid out by the Justice Department for releasing inmates would “render any benefit completely impossible,” she added. It lays out burdensome requirements for prisoners, she said, and requires a 14-day quarantine period before anyone can be transferred to home confinement.

“We need an expedited process in a pandemic,” Galvin-Almanza said. “This is life or death.”

The Bureau of Prisons announced that, beginning April 1, inmates in every federal prison would be quarantined in their assigned cells or quarters to combat the spread of the virus and that facilities would allow “limited group gathering.”

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment about how many prisoners had been transferred to home confinement since the order was issued.

As of Friday, five inmates had died from COVID-19 at a U.S. prison in Oakdale, La., as the disease spread through the facility. Across the country, the Bureau of Prisons reportedon Friday that there were 91 positive cases of COVID-19 cases among inmates and 50 cases among staff.

Barr issued a memo on Friday directing the Bureau of Prisons to expand early release programs at some federal prisons, including the Louisiana prison and others in Danbury, Conn.; and Lisbon, Ohio, CNN reported. Two prisoners had died at the Ohio facility.

Kate Chatfield, senior advisor for legislation and policy at the Justice Collaborative, stressed that prisons are not contained, and outbreaks will inevitably spread to local communities.

“It’s much worse than a cruise ship” in that way, she said. People are in tighter quarters and employees are cycling in and out, she said. “Just because people are locked up doesn’t mean that it’s going to be contained in that facility.”

State responses

Federal prisons account for only a small amount of the population incarcerated in the United States.

A March report from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that the vast majority of U.S. prisoners — about 1.3 million people — are held in state prisons. Another 631,000 are in local jails; federal prisons and jails hold 226,000 people.

Still, the federal government’s actions during the pandemic could significantly influence state and local policies, advocates say.

“Any big, visible system has the opportunity to show leadership in terms of dramatic moves,” said Galvin-Almanza.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread among inmates and employees at prisons and jails around the country.

For example, a Detroit transportation officer with the Michigan Department of Corrections died from COVID-19, the station WZZM reported, and at least 25 MDOC employees had tested positive for the virus.

Georgia’s Lee State Prison has been hard hit by the virus with one inmate death and a total of 12 inmates and staff testing positive, according to the Georgia Recorder. Overall, at least 23 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at Georgia Department of Corrections facilities.

In North Carolina, the first COVID-19 case at a federal prison was reported March 27 and involved a staff member. Less than a week later, 10 inmates tested positive for the virus at the same facility, NC Policy Watch reported.

The Prison Policy initiative is tracking examples of state and local agencies taking steps to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In Hillsborough County, Fla., for example, the sheriff announced that 164 “low level, nonviolent” offenders would be released from county jails.

Hundreds of inmates were released from jail in Allegheny County, Pa., due to concerns about the virus.

Prison reform advocates are hopeful that the crisis will lead to broad changes.

“We’re seeing the fault lines in our system and the flaws,” said Chatfield of the Justice Collaborative. She said those flaws go beyond the risks posed to prison populations and pointed to the vulnerability of homeless people and the broader needs for adequate health care.

“My hope and my fear are completely entangled right now,” said Galvin-Almanza. “My hope would be this would be the moment we as a society realize that we need a better system.”

Her fear, she added, is that in order for that to happen, “the worst predictions about death in custody will have to come true.”

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.