State Corrections Systems Get Failing Grade in Response to Pandemic

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In a bleak assessment of how the nation’s corrections systems coped with COVID-19, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) says the overwhelming majority of states failed to take basic steps that might have saved the lives of hundreds of incarcerated individuals and staff.

“Despite all of the information, voices calling for action, and the obvious need, state responses ranged from disorganized or ineffective, at best, to callously nonexistent at worst,” the PPI said in a report released Thursday.

Researchers graded each state according to several criteria, ranging from the level and frequency of testing and the provision of sufficient personal protective equipment, to whether the state carried through on pledges to release incarcerated individuals who were especially vulnerable to the illness.

Using publicly available information from state corrections department websites, the report found no state earned a grade higher than “D” —while the majority were given failing grades of “F” or at most “F+”.

Prisons and jails have been the sites of the biggest “clusters” of COVID-19 infections, rivaled only by nursing homes.

The report joined health experts in warning that the spread of the virus in correction facilities poses a major threat to public health in the communities beyond prison walls, where the disease could be spread by staff returning to their families or—in the case of jails—by the daily “churn” of individuals entering or released from pretrial detention.

“This failure to act continues to put everyone’s health and life at risk — not only incarcerated people and facility staff, but the general public as well,” the report said.

While awareness of the problem has grown, and the system has responded at many levels—from reduced arrests in some cities to court closures—corrections authorities and their political bosses failed to address the magnitude of the crisis, the report said.

“We find that most states have taken very little action, and while some states did more, no state leaders should be content with the steps they’ve taken thus far,” said the report.

“Even using data from criminal justice system agencies — that is, even using states’ own versions of this story — it is clear that no state has done enough and that all states failed to implement a cohesive, system-wide response.”

The report confirms anecdotal accounts from incarcerees and staff of delayed or inadequate responses by prison wardens, in particular the failure to provide testing, masks and sanitizer.

See for example the column by Washington State inmate Tomas Keen in The Crime Report, “Hostages Behind Bars: Why COVID-19 Fuels Tensions in Prisons.”

Since the first signs of the outbreak in March, public health advocates have pointed out that the nature of correctional institutions, with hundreds of inmates crowded together in small spaces, increased the odds of spreading the disease.

Containing the virus depends on early detection and isolation, but just five states—Massachusetts, Michigan, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Vermont — provided anything close to “comprehensive testing” regimes for staff and inmates, the report found.

Similarly, despite pledges by some authorities to sharply reduce jail populations, there were wide variations—from a 42 percent reduction in Arkansas to just 2 percent in Texas. In some states, jail populations appear to have increased.

The lack of demographic data also made it impossible to accurately assess the impact of the virus inside prisons and jails, although COVID-19 is known to have had a disproportionate effect on persons of color in the general population—a situation ascribed in part to co-morbidities associated with poverty.

Only eight state corrections systems provided specific data on the racial composition of coronavirus sufferers: Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia.

The most tragic consequences of state inaction were evident in the number of COVID-19 deaths behind bars, the report said.

“Even in states that appeared, ‘on paper,’ to do more than others, high death rates among their incarcerated populations indicate systemic failures,” said the authors.

As of June 22, over 570 incarcerated people and over 50 correctional staff have died as a direct result of infection from COVID-19.

“It has never been clearer that mass incarceration is a public health issue,” the report concluded.

“As of today, states have largely failed this test, but it’s not too late for our elected officials to show that they can learn from their mistakes and do better.”

The report’s co-authors are Emily Widra, a research analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative; and Dylan Hayre, a campaign strategist at the Justice Division of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Download the full report and the state-by-state breakdown here.

See also PPI table showing spread of coronavirus in state prisons.

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