Fearing Disease, Some Inmates Fall Back on ‘Unconventional’ Measures

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Living under unusual, high-pressure circumstances and without access to adequate health care or nutrition has forced the nation’s prisoners to cultivate a kind of secret knowledge that others on the outside might not possess.

That may be the only thing protecting them from falling victim to COVID-19, as correctional institutions around the country suffer from lack of sufficient health care and the reluctance of many authorities to heed calls for releasing prisoners, says Yusef Salaam, who was freed from prison after his wrongful conviction for the 1990 rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park.

Yusef Salaam

Yusef Salaam. Courtesy/Jackson Free Press-Yusef Salaam

“One of the things that I think is a saving grace for the inmate population is that we’ve been able to do things that are very unconventional,” Salaam told the Jackson Free Press in a recent interview.

Concerns over insuficient health care have forced many prisoners to fall back on their own resources to protect themselves from the Coronavirus, said Salaam, adding that his own prison experience has helped him counsel worried incarcerees in Mississippi, where he is now working as a prisoner advocate.

He recalled that in prison he had learned about homeopathic remedies for supporting a healthy immune system, such as eating cloves of garlic, as a way of staving off infectious diseases. He quoted one longtime elder telling him, “If you ever get sick, eat an onion.”

Editor’s Note: No medical evidence so far has documented whether such remedies can protect against infection from the novel Coronavirus.

“This is one of the worst nightmares that anyone could ever imagine, and it’s ‘times 10’ when it comes to the prison industrial complex,” Salaam said.

“If someone (in) the prison in their unit gets sick, the likelihood that all people in that unit will get sick is there and is real. This is a tragedy.”

“I think the prison industrial complex is considered at this point probably a petri dish,” he added.

Mississippi Jails, Prisons at High Risk

More than two weeks after the first signs of COVID-19 appeared in Mississippi, the state’s nearly 25,000 incarcerated individuals are at special risk of contracting the virus—but corrections authorities are ill-prepared to react, advocates warn.

“The thousands of Mississippians locked up in our local jails find themselves sharing common areas, bunk beds, toilets, sinks, and showers with dozens of different people each day,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

“Mississippi sheriffs will be the first to tell you that they do not have the expertise or resources to deal with a pandemic like COVID-19,” Johnson warned

“Our county jails have few, if any, full-time licensed medical providers, no proper isolation rooms, and woefully inadequate equipment and training specific to deal with infectious diseases.”

Some 19,000 individuals are detained inside state prisons, and more than 5,200 people locked up and awaiting trial in county jails.

The state’s most populous region, Hinds County, declared a state of emergency on March 16.

Soon afterwards, health-care professionals from the University of Mississippi Medical Center warned that a “tidal wave of cases” would soon hit Mississippi hospitals.

Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba issued an executive order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people. Those who violate the ban will be charged with misdemeanors.

After a Jackson Police Department officer tested positive for COVID-19 last week, the city announced that officers were instructed to release people charged with misdemeanors instead of booking them into jail.

Nevertheless, testing of both inmates and corrections staff has been complicated by the lack of on-site doctors inside jails, Capt. Tyree Jones of the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office, told the Jackson Free Press.

Inmates who fall ill or exhibit symptoms are transported to the nearest hospital for medical care and testing, he said.

A number of factors contribute to overcrowding and prolonged pretrial incarceration inside Mississippi’s jails, including the bail system, backlog in the court system, excessive delays from the moment of arrest to disposition, an underfunded public-defender system and the fact that Mississippi elects judges—causing some to adopt a tough-on-crime persona to satisfy constituents—among other systemic problems.

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Advocates are warning of COVID-19’s implications for Mississippi’s crowded jails and prisons. File photo by Imani Khayyam courtesy Jackson Free Press

In 2015, the Department of Justice placed the Hinds County Detention Center under a federal consent decree, due to prolonged pretrial incarceration and other issues there, and mandated the facility to improve. As of last December, the jail is still not federally compliant, because of ongoing staffing shortages and facility problems.

Mississippi State Public Defender André DeGruy said the crisis in the public-defender system, along with inequitable bail policies, contributed to the state’s high incarceration rates.

Mississippi currently has the second highest rate in the country, surpassing Oklahoma after that state implemented reforms, including re-classifying simple drug offenses to misdemeanors, that led to a drop in the prison population.

“The determination of whether to require a person to post a monetary bond for their release is very serious, and judges are supposed to consider evidence and analyze more than a dozen different factors in making that decision,” DeGruy said.

“Despite the gravity of this process and the fact that imposing bail can result in poor Mississippians being locked up for two years or more before finally getting their day in court, defense counsel is almost never present during these hearings,” he continued.

DeGruy added that “this reality of our broken public defender system creates a class-based system in which poor people languish in jail awaiting trial while people with money are out within 48 hours of being arrested.”

Data from the MacArthur Justice Center show that, on average, people in the Hinds County jail are incarcerated for 476.1 days and up to seven years before ever going to trial.

Mississippi currently does not impose a limit on how long a person can be incarcerated pretrial, DeGruy confirmed, though Mississippi Code does include a constitutional right to a speedy trial clause.

Seyma Beyram, a staff writer at the Jackson Free Press, is a 2019 John Jay/Arnold Justice Reporting Fellow. The above is a condensed and slightly edited version of several of her recent reports on how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting Mississippi. More JFP coverage of COVID-19 is available at jacksonfreepress.com/covid19.

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