Coronavirus and Prisons: A Deadly Combination

We must decarcerate prisoners to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 virus has spread like wildfire throughout the globe, causing mass hysteria and a rise in anxiety. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, schools have been closed, sporting events have been cancelled, beaches have been closed, and even entire cities have been locked down. But what do the people who are already in lockdown in prison do?

Many people think that prisons and jails would be safe places to combat the COVID-19 virus because they appear to be closed environments. However, correctional officers, medical staff, and visitors come in and out of these facilities everyday. Prisoners also travel to different prisons if they are transferred, go to court, or go to medical appointments. There are several opportunities for the virus to make its way into a prison, and once it is there, it could be hard to contain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people wash their hands with hand sanitizer and stay away from people who are sick. However, prisoners do not have the option to stay away from sick people or avoid gatherings of people. Prisoners also do not normally have access to products such as hand sanitizer because of its high alcohol content and the potential for abuse.

The people most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the elderly and people who are immunocompromised. According to this health survey of incarcerated individuals, prisoners have a higher burden of chronic conditions than the general population. This can be due to the lack of healthcare they have had or the inadequate healthcare they have in correctional facilities. Health care in prisons is, at best, as good as a lowincome plan; but for many inmates it is non-existent. Many prison systems are extremely overcrowded, so even in emergency situations, an inmate may have to wait several days to be seen by someone. Most states also require inmates to pay a copayment for medical care, which can be up to $100.

We have already observed how quickly the COVID-19 virus has spread through closed spaces like cruise ships and nursing homes. Prisons are now facing that same challenge.

The United States Attorney General issued an injunction to the Bureau of Prisons on March 26 requesting that vulnerable prisoners be sent home to try to control the spread of the virus. According to Attorney General William Barr, there are about 167,000federal prisoners in federal facilities and private or locally run jails, with about 10,000of them older than 60.

These are promising efforts, but simply not enough is being done to combat the spread of the virus in prisons.

The Pennsylvania Prison Society petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to decarcerate low-level offenders in efforts to reduce the prison population and lessen the spread of the virus. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the plea. Instead, the Justices ordered judges to ensure that prisons are following all the preventive measures that they can. As mentioned above, prisons have very limited resources and do not have the option to follow all of the CDC guidelines, such as social distancing.

Federal Judge Robert Chambers of West Virginia, rejected an emergency motion on April 6 filed by Mountain State Justice, a civil rights firm, seeking to release several medically vulnerable inmates because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The motion requested to reduce the inmate population and to develop a publicly available COVID-19 response plan. The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) said in their news release that they have a well-founded and appropriate plan to deal with the threat of the COVID-19 virus. This includes providing additional hygiene and cleaning products in the facilities, heightened health screenings when an inmate enters a jail, and they will be suspending copays for sick call visits. Judge Chambers said he believes the pandemic is a threat to the inmate population, but he believed the state had a reasonable and effective COVID-19 plan.

The state believes they are taking all the appropriate actions to combat the virus. However, state officials have still not provided a solution to the social distancing recommendation from the CDC.

The American Civil Liberties Union and West Virginia Public Defenders services filed a petition on April 8 with the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. The petition urged for the immediate release of offenders who pose a minimal safety risk to the public and those who are vulnerable due to underlying illness and age.

On April 9, Governor Jim Justice held a virtual press briefing to provide an update on COVID-19 response plans. During the briefing, he said he would let state officials, who oversee the correctional facilities, decide on the release of inmates.

On June 1, Gov. Justice released an update regarding the Huttonsville Correctional Facility outbreak, reporting that 118 inmates had tested positive, but no employees did. In response to the Huttonsville Correctional Facility outbreak, Gov. Justice ordered that every inmate and employee of every correctional facility in West Virginia be tested for COVID-19 to reduce the spread of the virus.

Many people fear that it will be too late before courts realize the importance of decarceration to prevent the spread. Prisons are in place to protect the wellbeing of the public and to enforce public safety. Nevertheless, with some governments and courts refusals to release inmates, decision makers are putting public safety at an even greater risk.

If you would like to keep track of which states are releasing inmates click here.

If you would like to keep track of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside prisons click here.

If you would like to track policy shifts across the country in response to COVID-19 click here.

If you would like to get involved, you can sign this petition to urge the release of the vulnerable from jails and prisons.