Jails, Prisons ‘Utterly Unprepared’ for Next Pandemic

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Rally outside Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center. Photo by Joe Piette via Flickr

Even as prisons and jails continue to grapple with the pandemic that swept through their facilities over the past 12 months, the nation’s justice systems have taken few steps to prepare for the next health emergency, warns a correctional union leader.

”It’s undeniable that departments of corrections were utterly unprepared for this pandemic, and they are still lacking any real public health preparedness for the next threat,” said Andy Potter, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization and founder of One Voice United, a national advocacy group for correctional officers and staff.


Andy Potter

Potter’s warning was echoed by leading correctional health specialists at an online forum last week co-sponsored by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and the Academy for Justice at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

“We all kind of knew from a healthcare standpoint something like this was coming, but everybody put it on a lower priority,” said Dr. Jeffrey Alvarez, chief medical officer for NaphCare, Inc., an Alabama-based private provider that operates correctional healthcare programs in 14 states.

“Public health systems are the least funded departments in counties across the country.”

Sharon Dolovich, a UCLA law professor who directs the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, said she hopes policymakers will use the lessons of the pandemic as an opportunity to reshape the carceral system.

“It’s a fantasy to think that we can continue to incarcerate on the scale that we are incarcerating now, and be in a position to respond to the next emergency, whether it’s a viral pandemic or otherwise, “ she said.

Dolovich added that thinking about prison from “a narrow, public safety perspective” ―concerned with keeping individuals locked up to protect other potential victims―ignored the connection between public health and public safety.

“What I’m hoping will come out of this is a recognition that prisons are not isolated institutions, they are in our societies,” she said, observing that the impact of health crises on correctional staff and on family members of people in custody could not be separated from the threats to the outside community.”

Dolovich called for a “public health oriented perspective” that recognizes the ways correctional institutions affect―and are affected by―broader community health issues.

Darkest Year in History’

Potter said the lack of preparedness hit the nation’s corrections employees especially hard.

“This past year by far has been the darkest in the history of our profession,” he said. “In the past 12 months we’ve lost over 160 officers and 49 custodial employees to COVID-19.

“We already work in environments that expose us to infectious diseases, but COVID has multiplied those dangers several-fold, and our tragic stories went mostly untold.

“While most Americans were able to socially distance and self-isolate, correction staff have not been able to do that.”

Potter said almost half of corrections officers in Michigan have contracted COVID “and we’re not even having the conversation yet about those long-haulers (individuals who develop related health problems after contracting the disease) and how officers are going to have to deal with them inside.”

The toll exacted by COVID-19 across the country’s correctional systems has been heavy.

According to the most recent figures compiled by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press, more than 2,500 people have died of coronavirus-related causes behind bars. Nearly 392,000 incarcerees and 107,537 prison employees have tested positive.

A video presented by Potter at the online forum offered poignant first-person vignettes of the experiences of corrections staff during COVID.

“Our staff has gotten to the point of where we don’t call ourselves essential,” said one. “We call ourselves sacrificial.”

Potter said a recent survey of 1,200 correctional staff across the country conducted by his organization found that over 65 percent believed their facility was unable to handle a pandemic and 61 percent reported not having “any of the tools they needed” to do their jobs safely.

The pandemic only “peeled back a couple of layers to expose” inadequacies of the system that staff have known about for years, he said.

“Think about the physical plants and the conditions that people live in on a day to day basis and the amount of disease that travels through a prison at any given time,” Potter continued. “You have eight people living in a cubicle that was designed for four; you can’t possibly be in that kind of an environment and do any kind of rehabilitation.

“You certainly can’t do that during a pandemic, and feel safe about it. (This is) a system that wasn’t designed for success for anybody since day one.”

National Preparedness Plan

The speakers suggested that a “national health preparedness plan” for correctional facilities could amplify some of the initiatives that have already been introduced in some places to protect incarcerees and staff, such as setting aside intake areas where newly incarcerated individuals could be held in quarantine while being tested for infections before joining the general population.

But other policies, such as isolating infected individuals, needed to be reconsidered, they said.


Sharon Dolovich

“What we’ve had over the last year is effectively long-term solitary confinement, because facilities have been locked down, with no programming, no visits, minimal movements—and that includes juveniles and people with mental illness, not to mention pregnant women,” said Dolovich.

“We need a more meaningful system for decarceration during exigencies, and it doesn’t have to be (tailored to) a pandemic; it could be other emergencies such as the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans or the forest fires in Oregon.”

Meanwhile, compassionate release with its focus on elderly incarcerees has “failed completely,” Dolovich said, because it still leaves some of the most vulnerable people in custody: health-compromised inmates serving long-term sentences for serious crimes and whose release would spark a political backlash.

Alvarez noted that removing the jailed or imprisoned individuals who fit the criteria for early release still leaves the sickest incarcerees behind,.

“The sicker population is left in the jails for us to try to treat, so we’re kind of balancing,” he added, noting that overworked healthcare staff often found themselves dealing with deeper health issues of those in custody, including mental health issues, but with reduced capacity to care for them.

Dr. Jeffrey Alvarez

“We kind of forgot that we’re in the middle of an opioid crisis,” Alvarez said. “I’ve had to refocus my own staff to tell them we can’t miss the people coming in with uncontrolled mental health disorders, uncontrolled or undiagnosed diabetes, hypertension, and all these other problems.

“I want to give that vaccine shot, but I don’t want to miss the person who is dying of diabetes or is suicidal.”

Complicating the problem was the fact that every state had different standards for care, often conflicting guidelines within their justice systems about vaccinations, and little willingness to share their data.

“It’s difficult to coordinate,” Alvarez said. ”Everybody does things a little differently not just at the state level but the county level. It’s like every city is its own county.”

Alvarez said the lack of funding has contributed to another problem: a decline in correctional healthcare workers.

“We’re losing staff every day to vaccination centers,” he said. “I don’t blame them. They’re offering a lot of money based on government funds―funds we don’t have. “

More information about this session, and other sessions in the John Jay/ASU webinar series is available here. The third and final program in the series is April 8. The public is welcome to register here.

Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report

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