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Almost 300,000 Fell Ill and 2,000 Died from COVID-19 in U.S. Jails, Prisons

However, the layout and general overcrowding of correctional facilities renders separation of prisoners a virtual impossibility. As a result, prisoners, many of whom come to jail with serious preexisting conditions, are four times more likely to contract the virus than those on the outside, and that ratio is likely to grow.

Initially, several states and counties released many non-violent offenders and some prisoners with little time left on their sentences to drop population counts, often after prodding by state courts to do so. Nationwide, jail populations decreased from 738,400 in December 2018 to 575,952 in July 2020. However, recently, the welcome trend of decarceration appears to have stalled.

The progression of COVID-19 has laid bare deficiencies in jail and prison health care, exposing its lack of availability and poor quality. It is no surprise that these deficiencies have taken, and will continue to take, a heavy toll on prisoner populations.

In early December, U.S. jails and prisons had 276,235 confirmed cases of COVID-19, a month-old figure that probably constitutes a significant undercount. At least one in five U.S. prisoners has fallen ill, and 1,738 have died.

Prison officials appear unable to stem the rising tide of illness and death.

Of course, public health officials were caught unaware when the virus struck in early 2020, but by March and April, the scope of the prison problem became painfully apparent, and much of what was done to flatten the tide was insufficient and inadequate. Hundreds of federal prisoners fell ill and dozens died at Elkton, Oakdale, Terminal Island, and Lompoc, among others, prompting then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Barr to direct federal Bureau of Prisons officials to begin releasing older and medically vulnerable prisoners under the CARES Act. Federal prisons decreased their populations by less than 20,000, from 175,000 in March of 2020 to 157,000 five months later, but that process, too, had begun to slow.

Unfortunately for the BOP, the hardest-hit facilities are those that house the most medically vulnerable, specifically, the federal medical centers of Butner, Devens, Carswell, Rochester, and Springfield, with dozens of prisoners ending up losing their lives, and even those who the BOP classifies as “recovered” suffering continuing symptoms with little medical intervention to ease their suffering.

Lack of PPE

Prisoners in all facilities have struggled with lack of personal protective equipment, inadequate cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and the inability of depleted medical staffs to respond in a timely fashion to sick calls or provide even simple medications to ease the suffering. Most outside medical visits have been canceled, which means that seriously ill individuals with medical appointments with outside specialists are not transported to receive treatment.

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General has cited every federal prison that has experienced a serious outbreak for failure to properly prepare and execute proper procedures to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has also taken a serious toll on correctional officials. The resulting absences and resignations have only contributed to miserable conditions in jails and prisons, as prisoners struggle to deal with mental health issues from prison conditions, and the cancellation of family visitations. Overcrowded facilities mean that it is difficult to separate the sick from the healthy, except by housing them in gyms, special housing units, or in neighboring institutions that may have a high security level.

Even when the institution has identified individuals who are ill, help often falls short in providing meaningful medical treatment. That is, until the individual is so ill that he or she must be transferred to an outside hospital on an emergency basis, generally to be intubated.

The case of federal prisoner James Velez, imprisoned at Milan prison in Michigan, is all too typical. Velez, 61, who had several preexisting conditions, was ill for weeks, without any medical treatment, before he died.

Survivors can feel hopeless in the face of such loss. They are unable to properly grieve the loss of their friends when they fear for their own lives. Indiana state prisoner Sarah Jo Parker spoke for many when she said: “Some of us wear masks even in our beds, but it feels futile. There is little to do except watch the infection spread and wait my turn to suffer.” She later tested positive for the virus as did hundreds of her fellow prisoners.

Infection Rates Inside Higher Than Communities

Jails and prisons, especially those with high prisoner turnover, are sources of disease spread in their communities. Cook County, Illinois Jail, with almost 400 infections at one time, was blamed for a rapid spread of the disease in its neighborhood, as guards who worked at the facility brought it back home. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), prisons and jails added more than 500,000 new COVID cases, 13 percent of cases nationwide. Nearly every prison system in the country has seen infection rates significantly higher than the communities around them.

Although some states have successfully moved people out of prison by early releases, paroles and furloughs, there is a fear that growing prisoner counts in many states will allow COVID-19 to continue its march. November and December both showed significant increases infection levels in several states. As the pandemic continues into its second year, and people grow numb at rising infection and death levels, increases in prisoner counts are becoming more common. And as the threat of COVID transmission becomes a normalized reality, incarceration reductions are reversing. According to PPI, in the period from March to July of 2020, the majority of 514 jails had reduced the number of people behind bars by an average of 26 percent, but since July, however, 77 percent of these same jails saw increases. Even Cook County, Illinois, saw a higher prisoner count.

A female prisoner at the Rockville state prison in Indiana perhaps summed up the feelings of many, saying, “The prison has essentially thrown up their hands and walked away from the problem for the moment. I am sure that they are working on a better solution (at least, we hope so),” she said. “But in the meantime, we see our neighbor get sick and we start worrying. Then they test positive, and we literally become trapped in the room with them. It’s like something out of a horror movie. In the beginning, I used to flippantly say that when the COVID finally comes here, the prison will just let us all get sick and die. I thought that I was just being dramatic, but it might have been more prescient than I know.” 


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