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COVID-19 Depletes State Prison Staffs Nationwide, Forcing Consolidation of Facilities and Increasing Risk to All

Individuals confined in jails and prisons, and the staff who work there, are especially vulnerable to the virus, and have been falling ill and dying in alarming numbers. This has forced many states to close or consolidate facilities, further increasing the health risks.

This development worries experts, including Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, who has studied the spread of the disease in jails and prisons. “Movement of people is dangerous,” she told The New York Times in a story published on January 21, 2021. “I think it really is not advisable to consolidate people in spaces that we know are really risky and will lead to greater rates of Covid there.”

Prison employees at every level have also faced increasing risks, and many have fallen ill, retired, resigned, or called in sick, leaving many facilities at dangerously low staffing levels. Although there was initially a reduction in prisoner population levels, that trend has recently been reversed, while difficulty in hiring new employees means that staff shortfalls continue.

Some state’s strategy of closing facilities or transferring prisoners has dramatically increased the risk to prisoners for a variety of reasons. First, prisoner transfers place individuals in close proximity to both other prisoners and guards. Second, the prisoners are generally being taken to a new facility with adequate staff but already overcrowded.

Referring to just these problems, North Carolina Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said, “It feels like we’re holding this together with bubble gum and packaging tape.” Nonetheless, he closed the Randolph Correctional Center in Asheboro and three minimum security facilities in late 2020. He also indicated that there might be additional closings.

Missouri’s Howard and Pike counties temporarily shut down their jails with the former’s Sheriff’s Office acknowledging that the closure was caused by “shortness of staff due to illness.” All of its prisoners were transferred to nearby Cooper County.

Audrain County Sheriff Matt Oller took some of the Pike County prisoners, accepted the additional prisoners reluctantly, knowing that it put pressure on the facility to do additional cleaning and maintain some measure of social distancing. “It’s a place where there’s a lot of people in one place at one time,” he said. “Any infectious diseases are a concern in a jail setting.”

Sometimes transfers can also be deadly, as in the case of numerous California county jails becoming infected by transfers from the state’s San Quentin prison.

Wisconsin experienced a similar outbreak after closing its prison in Waupun, transferring the 220 prisoners elsewhere, after a fourth of its staff fell ill, and the facility became dangerously short-staffed.  


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