COVID-19 in the Prisons and Jails – Why it Matters

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COVID-19 in the Prisons and Jails – Why it Matters

As predicted, COVID-19 is spreading throughout our nation’s prisons and jails. Why does the spread of COVID-19 in the prisons and jails matter?

1 – We are responsible for the health and safety of inmates that we have incarcerated, whether it is post-conviction or pre-trial. More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and many of those people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to poor health or advanced age.

2 – The spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails has a direct impact on the communities where the facilities are located. As guards, employees, visitors, and volunteers leave the facilities, they are carrying the virus to their communities and their families. When there is a flood of patients from a correctional facility requiring ICU beds at the local hospital in a small town, those beds will no longer be available for the residents of that community.

State and federal authorities need to quickly release more inmates who are non-violent and who are at increased risk from the virus.

State and federal detention centers need to do more to track the spread of the virus, including widespread and routine testing, and to prevent the spread of the virus – social distancing in the facilities, access to soap and water, access to hand sanitizer and masks that can be worn in common areas of the facilities.

Federal Prisons – COVID-19 in the Bureau of Prisons

As of April 13, the BOP is reporting that there are 388 federal inmates and 201 BOP staff with “confirmed positive results for COVID-19,” and 13 inmate deaths:

As of 04/13/2020, there are 388 federal inmates and 201 BOP staff who have confirmed positive test results for COVID-19 nationwide. Currently, 19 inmates and 12 staff have recovered. There have been 13 federal inmate deaths and 0 BOP staff member deaths attributed to COVID-19 disease.

Are these numbers accurate?

Like the rest of the country, the BOP is not testing everyone or even all inmates who show symptoms. If they are not tested, there is no “confirmed positive result,” and the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the BOP is not accurately counted.

When is the BOP testing inmates or staff?

Screening of Staff

According to the BOP’s published operation plan, the BOP is “screening” staff in areas where there is “sustained community transmission.” The screening includes self-reporting and temperature checks (but not testing for the virus):

Enhanced health screening of staff will be implemented in areas with “sustained community transmission” and at medical referral centers. Sustained community transmission is determined by the CDC and will be indicated on the map on this resource page where state community transmission indicates “Yes”. Such screening includes self-reporting and temperature checks for the next 30 days, at which time the process will be reevaluated.

Screening of Inmates

The BOP is also “screening” newly-arrived inmates for COVID-19 symptoms and “exposure risk factors” (but not testing for the virus). Inmates who have been exposed to the virus but who are not showing symptoms are quarantine (but not tested):

The BOP will continue to screen inmates for COVID-19 following previously-indicated practices:

  • All newly-arriving BOP inmates are screened for COVID-19 exposure risk factors and symptoms.
  • Asymptomatic inmates with exposure risk factors are quarantined.
  • Symptomatic inmates with exposure risk factors will be isolated and tested for COVID-19 per local health authority protocols.

The only time, per the BOP’s operation plan, that inmates or staff are tested for COVID-19 is when 1) they can prove they have been exposed to the virus – the BOP’s operation plan doesn’t say, but, in most circumstances, this means that you have been exposed to a person who has been tested and received a positive result; and 2) they are showing symptoms of the virus.

Why the Lack of Widespread Testing Matters

If we are not testing for the virus, we are blind – it is being spread, invisibly, by people who are either asymptomatic or who have not yet begun to show symptoms. The BOP, like the civilian authorities, is one step behind the spread of the virus, only seeing the people who are already infected, and then isolating the people who are probably already infected by the first group…

COVID-19, like other viruses including the flu and the common cold, is spread before the person starts showing symptoms.

More importantly, studies so far have shown that as many as one-third of persons who are infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic – they never show symptoms, therefore they never meet the BOP’s criteria for testing although they are still transmitting the virus to the people around them…

The BOP, local jails, and the general public cannot stop the transmission of the virus – or even know where it is – until they begin widespread and routine testing in facilities.

COVID-19 in the Prisons and Jails in SC

The numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in local prisons and jails are also suspect, for the same reason that the BOP’s numbers are suspect – they are not testing staff or inmates unless a person 1) is showing symptoms and 2) can prove they have been exposed to the virus.

The Horry County Sheriff’s Office has reported that an employee at J. Reuben Long Detention Center in Conway has tested positive for the virus after they were “alerted to the diagnosis on Thursday by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.”

An inmate at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston, SC, has tested positive for the coronavirus. 35 inmates from his housing unit have been “isolated to one location,” and “they will reportedly be under close observation for a minimum of 14 days and will be screened and temperature checked daily” (but not tested).

At least one SCDC employee has died from COVID 19.

Other local jails have reported varying numbers of inmates or staff who have tested positive for the virus.

Why Does Our Response to COVID-19 in the Prisons and Jails Matter?

State and federal prisons, as well as local detention centers, have many inmates who have underlying conditions or other risk factors, and they are terrified of infection by a life-threatening illness that they can’t run from and can’t protect themselves from.

While the general public is social-distancing, staying home, wearing masks in public, and doing everything they can to protect themselves, inmates in jails and prisons do not have the option of distancing themselves from other inmates and guards, do not have masks to wear when they are in contact with other inmates or guards, and, in many cases, do not have access to hand sanitizer (which is considered contraband in many facilities) or even hand soap.

If you don’t care about the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on the prison and jail population, you might care about the role prisons and jails play in community spread of the disease. Just as prison guards, employees, visitors, and volunteers are bringing the virus into facilities,

And — as the incarcerated understand better than anyone — jail and prison employees are also the ones most likely to bring the virus into overflowing facilities already grappling with older men and women, those suffering from chronic health conditions and the mentally ill.

they are also taking the virus out of the facilities and into their communities and homes:

More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States — more than anywhere else in the world. But the threat posed by COVID-19 behind bars extends well beyond prison walls. Even though most personal visits have been stopped, hundreds of thousands of guards, wardens and other correctional facility administrators go in and out 24 hours a day, potentially carrying the virus home to their families and communities.

Although many state and federal facilities are releasing some inmates with pre-existing conditions or advanced age to home detention, it is not enough. Many inmates with significant risk factors are not being released, and, for some, they feel that they are just waiting to die from this unfamiliar disease as the government ignores them.

If we care about the people that we are keeping locked behind bars across the country, and if we care about the communities where these facilities are located, we must:

1) Release all non-violent offenders with significant health risks and stop pre-trial incarceration of non-violent offenders who have not yet been convicted of a crime; and

2) Test all inmates and prison staff for COVID-19, regardless of their symptoms or proven exposure.

Inmates should have access to hand soap and water, hand sanitizer, and masks for use when they are in common areas.

We can do better. We must do better.

Federal Criminal Defense Attorney in Columbia, SC

Elizabeth Franklin-Best is a federal white-collar criminal defense and federal appeals lawyer located in Columbia, SC.

For more information, call us at (803) 331-3421 or send us an email to set up a consultation about your case.

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