With 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, many of whom are living in close quarters and overcrowded cell blocks, containing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus is going to be a “challenge” since jails and prisons are “fertile grounds for infectious disease,” experts warn.
As the number of Americans diagnosed with the virus continues to climb, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) is urging corrections authorities across the U.S. to make addressing the virus an “immediate priority.”
“Unfortunately, given the volume of incarcerated people in America, the conditions under which they are detained, and the current spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, there is every reason to question whether American detention facilities, as a whole, are up to this challenge,” said National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) President Nina J. Ginsberg, in a news release.
“To the extent those plans remain inchoate, NACDL strongly urges all relevant authorities to make [preparing for an outbreak] an immediate priority of the utmost urgency and to coordinate with leading public health experts at every stage.”
Latest figures as of Thursday show the disease has so far infected 96,953 people around the world, and killed 3,310. There have been 164 cases recorded in the U.S. and 11 deaths, but health authorities warn the numbers are likely to rise.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the coronavirus has been the most deadly to the elderly and to people with compromised immune systems–exacerbating the threat to an aging incarcerated population, which already suffers from poor health.
With overcrowding, and little to no room to truly separate inmates if symptoms arise, advocates are wondering whether the quarantine methods used in the general population are realistic in prison environments.
Joseph Darius Jaafari, a journalist with the PA Post, recently received a call from a worried mother whose son is currently held at the Quehanna Boot Camp, near Karthouse, Pa., under quarantine for flu-like symptoms.
So far no one has tested positive for COVID-19 in Quehanna Boot Camp. There are no figures publicly available about testing in other facilities around the country.
Maria Finn, the press secretary for Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, responded to Jaafari in an email this week, saying, “We certainly have pandemic plans in place for our facilities, but right now we are just monitoring.”
When questioned about their pandemic plans, the Dauphin County, Pa., Prison Board pointed to actions taken after the 2009 H1N1 virus, more commonly called the swine flu, began spreading around the country, citing the quarantine of inmates with “flu-like symptoms.”
But other authorities are skeptical about the value of quarantining prisoners. Sheriff James DiPaola of Middlesex, Ma., told Prison Legal News in 2010 that prisons and jails, because of their dense populations, are a “perfect breeding ground.”
The CDC has admitted that “correctional institutions pose special risks and considerations” for dealing with mass disease outbreaks “due to the nature of their unique environment.”
Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Scott Taylor told Business Insider that it is following CDC recommendations and has provided guidance to healthcare professionals throughout the system.
There is “a screening tool in place for use in the event an inmate or staff member is exposed or symptomatic,” Taylor said.
The screening tool is a set of questions that inquire about an individual’s contact history, travel history, and symptoms, and is designed to better clarify the risks an individual may have for contracting the disease, Taylor said.
The agency also has an internal system for reporting outbreaks, he said.
Other countries have responded to the threat by simply releasing some prisoners.
Iran, for example, recently allowed 54,000 low-risk inmates out of prison “temporarily” after testing negative for COVID-19, BBC News reports. But the country, which has been identified as one of the epicenters of COVID-19, is keeping its “high-security” prisoners locked behind bars.
The lack of transparency in most corrections systems has complicated the issue.
“There was a flu outbreak in Nebraska’s penitentiary last year, and another outbreak in an Oregon jail in 2018,” the PA Post recalled. “The Oregon outbreak resulted in a handful of lawsuits, including a $15 million payout to a family of one man.”
The NACDL press release called on prison authorities to release more information about testing and any outbreaks of COVI-19.
Transparency is critical not just for incarcerated persons and staff “but also their loved ones, their communities, and the communities in which these facilities are located,” the release said.
“Government authorities, the bar, advocates, and indeed all people in America should stand up today, tomorrow, and every day to demand that the health and safety of individuals detained in our name is a top priority, said Pat Cresta-Savage, Chair of NACDL’s Corrections Committee.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.