Prisons Deemed Not Safe During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative released a joint report in June detailing states’ handling of the coronavirus in prisons and jails, and ultimately deemed all 50 states to have acted with “gross negligence.” The report revealed that no state took adequate action to protect inmates and facility workers from the threat of COVID-19, as they all failed to implement cohesive and system-wide response measures.  

“Ultimately, prisons and jails across the country failed the incarcerated in protecting them from COVID-19,” says Attorney Seth Okin of Price Benowitz LLP. “The results of these failures are seen directly in the death rates of inmate populations, as they are much higher than the national average.”

Prisons as Hotspot for Coronavirus

The same ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative report states that as of June 22, more than 570 inmates have died and more than 50 correctional employees have died due to COVID-19, with such numbers expected to continue to increase in the coming months.

When the pandemic first struck, states were alerted that correctional facilities would likely become hotspots for the virus due to their unique conditions. Health experts warned that, once inside, COVID-19 would rapidly spread due to the inability to properly socially distance, poor sanitation conditions, and limited medical supplies within correctional facilities. There were additional concerns of the virus impacting vulnerable populations of elderly inmates and those with pre-existing health conditions.

Grading the States

The report assesses all 50 states’ handling of the situation and gives a grade accordingly. The grades range from A+ to F-, with A+ being the best possible score and F- being the worst. This grading scale considered factors such as the availability of testing and personal protective equipment to staff and inmates, reductions in inmate populations, issuances of executive orders, and the availability of up-to-date and accessible data.

The majority of states received a failing grade due to their inadequate responses in satisfying these factors and inappropriate handling the public health crisis. The highest grade that was given was a D- and only nine states received it, which included Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Orgeon, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Vermont. All other states received grades within the F range, which constitutes as failing.

What States Failed to Do

States failed to protect inmates and correctional staff in a few key ways. One of the simplest ways to limit the spread of the virus has been wearing personal protective equipment, such as masks, yet not all states provided such equipment. Furthermore, only five states – Massachusetts, Michigan, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Vermont – instated comprehensive testing for everyone within the facilities, inmates and staff alike.

Due to the high population density in correctional facilities and inmates commonly eating, sleeping, and showering within feet of one another, public health experts urged states to take steps to reduce the facility populations. Yet governors from only 16 states issued some form of executive orders for the release of medically vulnerable or those nearing the end of their sentences. These release orders typically called for rapid releases yet most systems were slow to do so and few saw significant drops in population. Additionally, some states chose not halt jail admissions and instead saw correctional facility populations rise as a result.

Protecting Inmates’ Safety

As the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing, correctional facilities across the country will continue to feel its negative impact. Until state’s prioritize the health and safety of those who are incarcerated, their health and safety will remain at risk. If you have concerns regarding the safety of your loved one’s who are currently incarcerated, contact our offices today to discuss the case and the options that may be available.