Second Wave of Virus Feared if Jails, Prisons are Left Unprotected

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Photo by Ryan O'Meilia via Flickr

A second wave of coronavirus infections in the U.S. could be triggered from jails and prisons if efforts are not made to protect incarcerated populations and staff, a webinar was told Wednesday.

Individuals confined or working in the nation’s 7,000-plus jail and prison facilities are potential “vectors” of disease, because the crowded quarters and the constant churn of inmates and staff ensures that anyone exposed to COVID-19 will rapidly spread it beyond prison walls, senior corrections and health officials told a web-based press conference.

“We’re only as healthy as the most vulnerable people in the community,” said Dr. Alysse Wurcel, who advises the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association on dealing with the virus, told the webinar, hosted by the REFORM Alliance, a non-profit reform group.

“We have to prioritize them, or we’re going to be in the same place we were two months ago.”

alysse wurcell

Dr. Alysse Wurcel

Dr. Wurcel, an infectious disease expert based at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said  Massachusetts had kept the incidence of COVID-19 in the  corrections system low, primarily because of widespread  testing.

But she warned that the encouraging decline of COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country could be reversed in a “second, third and fourth wave,” prompted in part by corrections officers and formerly incarcerated citizens—many of whom may be asymptomatic but still have the disease–who returned to communities which were ending shelter-in-place policies.

Her point was echoed by Ed Gonzalez, sheriff of Harris County in Texas, who oversees one of the largest jail systems in the country.

“We have 2,000 people cycle in and out of our facilities every day,” said Gonzalez, adding that even though he had adopted a number of precautionary health policies such as daily changes of face masks and regular testing, it was impossible to provide full protection without stronger support from authorities⸺including severely reducing the number of people who are sent to jail in the first place.

Complicating the problem, Gonzalez said, is that Texas state prisons will no longer accept inmate transfers—increasing the burden on jail facilities—and trials have stalled because many judges refuse to allow anyone in their courtroom who has ever tested positive for COVID-19.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

“The wheels of justice are slowing down,” he said, adding that changing sentencing and pretrial detention policies should be high on the agenda.

“Help for jails is community help,” he said, explaining that reducing the danger of infection from inmates and staff will protect the wider population of Harris County, which includes the city of Houston and is the third most populous county in the U.S.

Texas is among the states that have moved quickly to reopen businesses.

Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy officer for the REFORM Alliance, said an overhaul of probation and parole⸺long a goal of reformers⸺had risen to the top of the agenda during the pandemic.

Jackson said her group has put forward a set of recommendations called the SAFER prevention plan, which included measures to improve sanitation inside facilities, reduce the use of “unnecessary” community supervision conditions, and develop alternatives to imprisonment.

“We need to rethink who goes inside,” she said, noting that a large percentage of those returning to prison were re-arrested for “technical violations”⸺such as non-payment of fines or supervision fees⸺rather than for criminal behavior.

But, she noted that as a result of the economic slowdown, many of those on parole had lost their jobs and therefore risked being in default—and sent back to prison, in effect victimized twice by the epidemic.

Van Jones, CEO of the REFORM Alliance, said there were already troubling signs that a resurgence of coronavirus in Asia had been fueled by its spread in poorly protected incarcerated populations.

Van Jones

Van Jones

“There’s a lot of talk about getting back to normal, but (in prisons and jails) there’s no flattening of the curve, and that’s a threat to everybody,” he said. “We’ll be in a yo-yo string unless we get this right in prisons.”

According to figures cited by REFORM Alliance, some 20,000 incarcerated individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 as of May, and 300 have died. Over 5,000 correctional officers have tested positive.

These figures are likely undercounts since many jails and prisons still do not have reliable testing regimens.

Dr. Wurcel and Sheriff Gonzalez said it was critical to broaden testing in jails as well as ensure that there were protective measures in place for those returning to their families.

There should be “a low threshold for testing,” said Dr. Wurcel, explaining that every inmate and staff member should be tested regularly whether or not they exhibited symptoms.

In Harris County, authorities have tested some 20 percent of the jail inmates, but Gonzalez said he hoped to soon move to testing the entire population, as well as work with community service providers to ensure returning inmates could be safely housed in their communities.

While Harris County has recorded only three deaths from COVID-19 so far, Harris pointed out that his jail population was disproportionately among the county’s most vulnerable population. Some 50 percent were African Americans and 25 percent were Hispanic, and nearly all suffered from co-occurring health conditions.

Other states have begun to follow Massachusetts’ example of widespread testing.

After prodding from the correctional officers union, prisoner advocates and inmates themselves, Maryland announced this week that it will test the entire population—including staff and inmates—at state prisons and juvenile justice facilities.

Dr. Wurcel was asked to respond to critics’ concerns that releasing large numbers of inmates posed a public safety threat.

“None of us can predict crime,” she said. “But if we don’t [protect incarcerated populations] it will be a public safety issue for everyone else.”

 Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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