From the beginning of the national health emergency, it was clear that the novel coronavirus would pose a major challenge to the nation’s prisons and jails, with much of the social distancing called for in the outside world virtually impossible to achieve in the tight quarters behind bars.
Nearly 16,000 inmates and more than 7,500 corrections staff members nationwide have tested positive for exposure to the virus, a videoconference organized by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) heard Thursday.
Those figures are considerably higher than the rate of exposure among the general population.
COVID-19 has so far caused the deaths of at least 214 inmates and 26 staff members. That is below the general mortality rate for the virus, but the exposure figures are assumed to be understated because of the lack of widespread testing in many facilities.
Not all the news is grim, however.
Three corrections administrators assembled by CCJ, a new criminal justice think tank, told the videoconference that their two states and a large county were managing so far to avoid major outbreaks.
The fourth speaker, an activist from the advocacy group #cut50, contended that the pandemic should be an opportunity for releasing many more inmates than states and counties have done so far.
Oregon corrections director Colette Peters said her agency was relatively prepared to deal with the pandemic because the state government already had plans in place to react to a massive earthquake that is predicted to hit the West Coast sometime in the coming decades.
Like other states, Oregon promptly imposed a lockdown in its prison system that limited entry to staff and new inmates and blocked outsiders from entering facilities, which helped reduce the risk of exposure.
Oregon prisons have also been required during the pandemic to accept newly sentenced prisoners from county jails, a figure that had totaled 400 a month before the virus struck but was down to 313 in April as local courts curtailed their operations.
Another corrections director, Anne Precythe of Missouri, told the videoconference that her state has been able to manage the pandemic so far by confining infected inmates and staff to designated wings of prison complexes. Each prison in the state has a “viral containment plan,” she said.
Peters is vice president of the Correctional Leaders Association, a national organization of state prison directors, and Precythe is the group’s treasurer.
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez of Houston’s Harris County told the gathering that his jail system, the nation’s third largest, has been helped by being able to reduce the inmate population from about 9,000 to 7,500 during the pandemic.
Officials have been able to keep the justice process moving for some offenders by holding probation and parole hearings by video, Gonzalez said.
Still, nearly 400 of 650 prisoners who have been tested have been exposed to the disease, although no deaths had been recorded as of Thursday.
The conference was joined by Louis Reed, a former inmate who is a national organizer for #cut50, an advocacy group that aims to cut the nation’s prison population sharply.
Reed said the dangers posed by the coronavirus should be a reason to free many more inmates than states and counties have so far.
“This is a moment to be bold,” he said, “[and to] end the warehousing of human beings.”
He told tales of individual inmates, including a Connecticut man imprisoned on a probation or parole rules violation who died of COVID-19 at age 26, and a New Jersey inmate suspected of being infected by the disease who was told to chew on ice cubes before being examined presumably to minimizes his chances of having a high temperature.
Corrections officials agreed that the virus is hampering prisoner re-entry programs, which face severe hurdles even in normal times in finding jobs, housing and medical treatment for prisoners who are returning to society.
The fact that all of those services have encountered their own limitations during the national lockdown in recent weeks has prevented corrections authorities from expanding inmate releases very much.
“The jobs don’t exist,” Missouri’s Precythe observed.
The “fear factor is high” among many outside the corrections community in accepting former prisoners back into normal life, said Oregon’s Peters. Instead of regarding ex-inmates as people with “scarlet letters,” she said, “the community should welcome them back.”
While Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has barred a mass release of inmates, the state still frees about 400 monthly, and “we barely have resources for them,” Peters said.
One positive result of the pandemic, the corrections officials agreed, was that it is forcing them to improve relationships with public health authorities in their states and counties so that the medical issues faced by offenders both while they are incarcerated and afterwards can be addressed.
A video of the session is available on YouTube.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.