Pandemic in Prisons on the Rise

The coronavirus pandemic has affected the globe in far too many ways to count. In the United States, inmates are catching and dying from the virus at high rates. Prisons and jails are facing backlash from the ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative, who claim that they have responded to COVID-19 with “gross negligence.” The number of cases in jails and prisons around the country has risen, many referring to them as a coronavirus hotspot. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, hundreds of inmates have died due to COVID-19.

The two organizations published a report about the response to the coronavirus and the condition for people who are incarcerated during the pandemic. In the report, all 50 states were given a grade based on their handling of COVID cases. Only nine states got a D- rating (Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maine, and Vermont) while all other states received a failing score. These scores were given after many states failed to test inmates and anyone working in the jails and prisons, as well as the failure to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) as well.

In Colorado, the largest outbreak was at the Sterling Correctional Facility. The facility had 10% of its inmates test positive for the virus. In addition to this outbreak, a prison in Denver also had 87 inmates test positive. Both instances account for the two largest recorded outbreaks in the state of Colorado.

There were only a few things done in jails and prisons across the country to assess and mitigate risk, such as testing and the early release of inmates. However, only five states partook. Michigan, Massachusetts, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Vermont, did widespread testing of inmates. New Mexico tested staff working in the prisons and jails, whereas Alaska and North Dakota didn’t provide any PPE to the inmates.

The lack of protection and testing lead to the spread of the virus with no way of knowing how present it is and how far it might be spreading from staff going home, or inmates getting released back into their communities. Attorney Dayne Phillips of Price Benowitz LLP says, “Failure to exercise a minimum amount of caution for inmates is negligent and sure to cause deaths that could have been avoided with proper protection and safety measures.  Inmates should have masks and be socially distant as much as possible, and non-violent offenders should be sent back to their homes.  Simply put, people in prison still have rights and a duty of care must be met for their health and survival.”

The cases inside of prisons and jails affect those who are outside of their walls, even if visitors aren’t allowed in or releases are postponed over safety concerns. Other risks come from inmates attending court appearances or even needing to receive medical attention outside of the facility like in a hospital. The easy and practically uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 makes it different from any other epidemic that prisons and state facilities have dealt with in the past.

California will be releasing up to 8,000 inmates this summer in order to create space within prisons. The goal of this initiative is to allow enough room for social distancing and quarantines. Those reentering their communities will be testing for COVID-19 within seven days of their release. Those who have less than 180 days remaining in their sentence will be released. There are other qualifications for release that must be met. The prisoner cannot be incarcerated for domestic violence or any other violent charges. They also cannot be released early under this program if they will have to register as sex-offenders. This program is ongoing. The early releases of prisoners to prevent the spread of the coronavirus began in mid-March for some facilities.

The virus is still making its way through the country and people in prisons, both inmates and staff, will continue to fall ill without proper procedures being put in place to protect them. The release programs are a start, but updating conditions within the facilities and giving inmates masks and other forms of PPE are necessary too.