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How Jails Became a Breeding Ground for the Coronavirus

That luck ran out later in the month. A bus arrived from Grady County Jail in Oklahoma carrying 22 prisoners, only one of whom did not test positive for the novel coronavirus. A month later Lacey and 444 fellow prisoners — over 60% of FCI-Waseca’s total population — had contracted the coronavirus, with four of them requiring hospitalization.

More troubling, what happened at FCI-Waseca was not an isolated instance. An investigation by Vice News and The Marshall Project revealed that Grady County Jail had transferred infected prisoners to multiple federal facilities.

In April 2020, the Oklahoma jail shipped eight prisoners to the Federal Medical Center (FMC) in Fort Worth, including Joseph Maldonado-Passage. Better known as “Joe Exotic,” the former star of the Netflix series Tiger King had been sentenced to 22 years in prison for a 2019 conviction in a murder-for-hire plot. A week later, he was one of many prisoners placed in quarantine when FMC-Fort Worth reported its first case of COVID-19.

After a month, 600 prisoners had contracted the virus and 12 had died. Yet the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accepted two more busloads of prisoners from Grady County at FMC-Fort Worth again in June, with several of those new arrivals testing positive for the virus.

“The lack of communication from the onset of this really put a lot of people at risk,” said guard Greg Watts, who also is the local union president. “I wish they could have done some things differently.”

Five other Grady County prisoners with COVID-19 arrived at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Chicago in October 2020. Senior guard Kevin Lasley said he was doubly alarmed that the Oklahoma jail not only had sent infected prisoners but had also provided them Tylenol to mask any fever that might indicate there were sick. In an email to union officials at the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, he warned flatly: “This hillbilly county jail is jeopardizing our staff all over the agency.”

Grady County Jail Warden Jim Gerlach pushed back on that claim, insisting that there is “no scientific data, no medical data” to the reports about his jail, which is one of the country’s largest transfer sites with 445 federal prisoners. The jail has reported 121 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“We don’t have very many cases here,” he said.

But the situation prompted a senior BOP official to warn his staff in an email that if prisoners “have been housed in Grady County Jail, it would be a good idea to assume they are positive for COVID-19.”

Despite attempts at screening and isolation, BOP has been unable to contain the spread of COVID-19 in its 126 facilities. As of December 11, 2020, it had reported 30,911 positive tests for the disease among 124,611 prisoners and 4,008 more among approximately 36,000 staff members. The agency said another 155 prisoners and two staff members had died from the disease.

The coronavirus has spread rapidly throughout the federal prison system in large part because prisoners move in and out of BOP via an extensive network of local, state, and private jails. But even under normal circumstances, American jails often lack resources to meet the health care needs of their inmates. They are routinely cited for understaffing, and coupled with their chronically overcrowded conditions—which accelerate the transmission of the virus—they are woefully ill-equipped to contain an outbreak. As a result, jails are a breeding ground for the coronavirus, with some — like Grady County — becoming “super-spreaders.”

In addition, the jail network is also shared by the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, who contract with local facilities to temporarily house some 52,000 inmates. At the Grady County Jail, they pay $64 per prisoner per day.

As of early October 2020, USMS recorded almost 5,500 prisoner infections and 17 deaths, with an additional 153 infections and three deaths among staff members. As of December 4, 2020, ICE reported that 7,888 immigrant detainees had tested positive for COVID-19, with eight of those cases resulting in death. But with so many detainees moving through its system — ICE reported over 70,000 positive tests but only 16,400 people currently detained — the agency may be the largest “super-spreader” of all. A report issued by Detention Watch Network on December 10, 2020, estimated that ICE detainees alone were responsible for over 5% of all positive COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

A database maintained by The New York Times recorded a total of 16 million positive cases in the country as of December 12, 2020.

Vice News reports that the BOP is aware that the jail network is shipping infected prisoners to its prisons, but officials say since the agency does not own or operate jails it therefore has no authority to enforce a standard set of protocols. Each jail is left to implement its own COVID-19 guidelines — usually in the form of temperature checks and questions about exposure and symptoms — but some jails implement no protocols at all.

As a result, pre-transfer testing is rare and even when utilized can prove ineffective. In response to the outbreaks at FCI-Waseca and other BOP facilities, USMS began requiring Grady County Jail to test prisoners for the coronavirus before they were transferred, according to agency spokesperson Lynzey Donahue. But the Oklahoma jail is equipped with Abbott Rapid Tests, which are less reliable  than a lab test. According to Brian Mueller, a regional union vice president for BOP staff, its results are about as accurate as “flipping a coin.” He has instructed his union members to stop relying on the machine’s results.

Any type of testing, furthermore, is useless without strict quarantine measures. When infected prisoners arrive in a BOP facility, they are almost always placed in segregated housing. But staff and prisoner workers assigned to duty in the segregated area often continue to circulate in the prison’s general population.

For those infected, surviving COVID-19 is only half the battle. The disease can continue to impact the health of survivors if they require long-term care and even after they are deemed “recovered.” At FCI-Waseca, Lacey — who has lingering headaches and fatigue, known as “COVID brain”— said prisoners whom staff reported to be “recovered” are immediately put back to work even when they still suffer from hair loss and frequent asthma attacks, continuing to wheeze and gasp for air.

“Like, they are sick,” she said, “They can’t breathe. Their voice is gone. They’re winded. I look at them and I’m telling you, they look like death.” 


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