States move to protect prisoners from coronavirus outbreaks
State and local corrections departments are taking steps ranging from sequestering inmates to releasing low-level offenders in efforts to prevent the deadly coronavirus from spreading through prisons and jails.
Prisoners are among the most vulnerable groups at risk of both a widespread outbreak and of suffering severe symptoms, experts said. Incarcerated populations tend to be older, many inmates have underlying health conditions and there is little social distancing to be achieved in confined spaces.
“We’ve incarcerated a lot of people, and these people are basically living without the ability to physical distance in the way we would recommend others,” said Clay Marsh, executive dean for health sciences at West Virginia University who is overseeing his state’s response to the coronavirus.
Hundreds of inmates in federal, state and local corrections facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has confirmed 241 cases among federal inmates, and 73 among bureau staff in a total of 37 facilities. Eight inmates have died.
Attorney General William Barr has ordered facilities in Louisiana, Connecticut, Ohio and North Carolina to release some inmates early to reduce the spread of the virus.
But the bigger threat to inmates is in state prisons, which collectively hold almost 1.3 million prisoners, about five times the number of inmates at the federal level, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Thirty-seven states have suspended personal visits, and 15 have even ended visits with legal teams beginning in the middle of March, according to The Marshall Project. Several states are moving to secure alternate sites where prisoners diagnosed with COVID-19 can be housed while they are treated and recover.
Pennsylvania, in perhaps the most drastic step taken so far, ordered a statewide quarantine of every prisoner after the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed last month.
“This is essentially forced social distancing. We must take this step to contain the virus to one facility and to keep it from spreading throughout the system. I don’t want to wait until we have several cases in our system to act. We’re taking this proactive measure now,” said John Wetzel, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections.
Other states are moving to reduce their prison populations altogether.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) issued an executive order releasing inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who were scheduled for release in the next 30 days, provided they have a parole plan in place. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has said he, too, is considering letting nonviolent inmates out early.
Those early exits are even more crucial for older inmates, said Adam Gelb, president of the Council on Criminal Justice. The coronavirus has shown a disproportionate impact on older people, who are both more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die from the disease.
“There’s a sense that for many of these people, keeping them locked up could be a death sentence. They weren’t sentenced to death,” Gelb said.
In Alabama, Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn placed a 30-day moratorium on inmate transfers between county jails and state prisons. He told a state legislative committee this week his department is actively looking for potential field hospitals for inmates who might become ill, even though the state corrections system has yet to see its first confirmed case.
Cities like Albuquerque, New Orleans and St. Louis have released some nonviolent and low-level offenders early. In New Orleans, police are arresting far fewer people for things like low-level drug crimes, said Jeff Asher, a public safety consultant who works with the city council.
The inmates themselves in many cases are put at risk from the very guards who are supposed to protect them.
At least 62 people who work in California state prisons have tested positive for the virus, as have 17 inmates across four facilities. Three staffers at the Federal Correctional Institute in Yazoo City, Miss., have tested positive, and now 25 inmates have the virus too. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said this week that five staffers and nine inmates at a correctional complex had tested positive.
“The way that our prison facilities are set up makes us want to prevent the coronavirus from getting into any of them,” Beshear told reporters during a briefing. “We are doing everything we can to quarantine and move those that have tested positive and or been in close contact with those that have tested positive to other areas.”
Generally, the mortality rates in prison populations are lower than in the overall population, Gelb said, largely because inmates have less access to things that cause accidental death — they can’t get in car accidents, and access to the drugs that cause so many overdoses around the country is severely curtailed, if not eliminated altogether.
But the area in which the prison population is more at risk is the one vulnerability that the coronavirus exploits: Prisoners are far more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases than the general public, Gelb said.
At the same time, incarcerated populations are helping in the fight against the coronavirus. Inmates in Pennsylvania have already made 185,000 cloth masks for Department of Corrections employees and their fellow prisoners, along with disinfectant, gowns and antibacterial soap.
Overall, the new push to get prisoners out of incarceration is an unexpected echo of bipartisan efforts in recent years to reform the criminal justice system, perhaps the most significant reform measure President Trump has signed — before the package of relief bills aimed at combating the coronavirus.
“It’s weird that we’re in this moment of looking at criminal justice reform and bail reform as experiments,” Asher said. “They’re thrust in the limelight as policies that are necessary from a public health standpoint.”
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