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Reports: COVID-19 More Prevalent Than Reported in Nation’s Prisons and Jails

by Kevin Bliss

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report May 6 based on data gathered from 54 state and territorial health departments, claiming about 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among prisoners in state and federal prisons, jails and detention centers.

Two weeks later, Reuters prepared an independent study surveying only 13% of the nation’s incarcerated population and found 17,300 confirmed cases, already more than three times the number reported by the CDC. The Reuters report stated that facilities that performed mass testing of their detained population have reported as much as a 65% infection rate.

The United States holds more than 2 million people in some form of incarceration, either serving a sentence or awaiting trial, more than any other nation in the world.

Scant testing and inconsistent reporting have resulted in a massive understating of the people inside the system who are infected with COVID-19. Aaron Littman, professor at the University of California School of Law in Los Angeles, said of the dramatically low CDC tally, “We don’t have a particularly good handle” on cases of COVID-19 in our prison systems and jails, “and in some places we have no handle at all.”

Prisons have proven fertile ground for the quick spread of COVID-19 with overcrowded cell blocks, poor hygiene practices and inadequate sanitation. And jails are even worse as they are less-equipped to handle long-term care of medical patients and the ability to isolate large numbers of contagious detainees.

High turnover rates in jails and detention centers also risk constant exposure to infection to both those held within the jails and the communities of those being released. Those in prisons are less exposed to risk of infection — mainly through the introduction from staff and volunteers — yet the quick spreading of the virus is just as serious in the close-quartered living conditions.

With the onset if the virus in the United States, the availability of testing kits was limited, requiring that only those in prisons and jails showing symptoms be tested, meeting the minimum CDC guidelines. The CDC did not require universal testing, a sample population would be sufficient for determination of overall infection prevalence.

Epidemiologists are concerned about the reporting practices and the underrepresentation of the infection in prisons and jails because of the implications the spreading of the virus has on health officials and policymakers. Prisons and jails are seen as key pathways for the transmission of COVID-19 and consideration must be given not only to the care to those in custody of the jails and prisons, but also in their release and tracking the virus’ spread.

Dr. Thomas Pangburn of Wayne County, Michigan’s contracted health-care provider, Wellpath LLC, said jail detainees are the “last and least of the lost.” They are generally overlooked when it comes to testing kits and medical supplies. But, he said they “have the most vulnerable population in a very confined space meant for correctional housing — and not for medical care.”

Members of the criminal justice system and civil rights groups are concerned that facilities are ill-equipped to control the virus. Even staff and guards are being affected by the outbreak. The CDC reported 2,800 cases in correctional staff nationwide. Reuters once again said this total is greatly underreported; if mass testing were mandatory that number would be much higher.

The head of Wayne County’s deputy sheriffs’ union, Reginald Crawford, posted a message on Facebook after the jail lost a commander, a medical unit deputy, a doctor and the medical director to the virus. He said, “Working in the Wayne County jail has now become a DEATH sentence!”

The jail has since had more than 200 staff and detainees test positive for COVID-19.

Many jails and prisons are releasing high-risk prisoners and detainees to slow the spread of the virus. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Unions said this is critical because of the potential for spreading the virus in correctional facilities. Others, such as the victims’ rights group Marsy’s Law, criticize the decision because of how it affects victims and the lack of notification given of these releases.

Communities are concerned because people are being released early without first testing them for COVID-19 and those who are infected are not being provided with proper medical treatment or isolation conditions. And those who remain behind bars claim outbreaks violate their constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Either way, as one of the more than 100 lawsuits filed nationwide states, “Failing to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 endangers not only those within the institution, but the entire community.”

By June 2, The Marshall Project reported that more than 40,000 prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 – a jump of 18 percent in just six days. As of the same date, at least 496 prisoners had died of “coronavirus-related causes.” 



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