Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

A First Glance in Rear-View Mirror at Pandemic

by Kevin W. Bliss, Matt Clarke, Ashleigh N. Dye and Keith Sanders

As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes from the headlines, its full effect on prisoners and detainees is coming into clearer view. One of the first glimpses was provided in a December 2021 report by the federal Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, which showed startling increases in death rates for the nation’s prisoners and parolees in 2020, compared to the year before. The death rate for those incarcerated in prisons jumped 46%. For people on parole, the hike was 32%. The death rate also increased for probationers, though by only 6%.

“We can’t say for sure that it was due to COVID infections,” observed Wendy Sawyer, the research director for the Prison Policy Initiative. “The data don’t break that out specifically, but I think that we can pretty safely assume that a lot of that was pandemic related in some way.”

Sawyer attributed the sharp increase in part to “the fact that correctional populations, by and large, have higher rates of chronic illness that would make them more vulnerable to things like COVID.” Furthermore, prisoners often receive substandard health care, which may not quickly improve after being released on parole. Previous studies have also shown incarceration has a rapid aging effect, reducing lifespans for prisoners by an average of two years per year served behind bars.

That said, Sawyer called prison officials’ response to the pandemic dismal. Prisoner population fell, but mostly thanks to fewer prison admissions, not more prisoners being released. In fact, the number of releases went down in 2020, indicating it “was not any kind of intentional action taken by prison officials to protect folks,” Sawyer said.

Media reports and a Twitter poll of former prisoners revealed that drug smuggling into prisons actually increased during the pandemic despite a suspension of visitors and strict new mail rules. This led to a spike in disciplinary incidents for prisoners and staffers, too, with many of the latter fired for smuggling. But the impact of the disease went far beyond that.

Canceled Programing Delayed Releases in Michigan

In January 2022, as the pandemic was entering its third year and the highly transmissible Omicron variant drove the spread of COVID-19, nearly one of every ten Michigan prisoners was infected, leading the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to extend severe programming restrictions already in place in its 27 prisons.

But it wasn’t just the loss of rehabilitation and education classes that the state’s 32,000 prisoners were forced to endure. The cancelations also affected almost 2,000 prisoners required to complete some form of rehabilitation—for mental health problems, sex-offense prevention or drug and alcohol abuse—prior to release. As a result, DOC spokesperson Chris Gautz explained, “About 500 of the 2,000 are past [their] early release date.”

That is, they were eligible for release, but they remained locked up because of a lockdown.

Still Gautz was adamant that no one was getting out before completing required rehabilitation, no matter how long the wait to get it. “If somebody has been beating their spouse or killed someone, we’re not going to send that person back out on the street without having gone through these violence prevention classes,” Gautz said.

But what about those ready for release who already had jobs and housing lined up?

“[W]hat this does is set everything back,” replied Michael McKissic, creator of Mikey 23 Foundation, an organization devoted to training and mentoring youth. McKissic argued that DOC should have continued all those classes online to avoid keeping prisoners past their release dates so that they could get home “and be productive citizens.”

Waiting to do just that was Terry Kloz, a prisoner at Guss Harrelson Correctional Facility, who readily admitted, “I did the crime, you know I’m not one of the innocent guys.” But after serving six years, he couldn’t expect to be released as scheduled on St. Patrick’s Day.

“I did everything I was supposed to,” he said. “I kept my nose clean the whole time and I’m just ready to go home.”

In Nevada, Staff Vaccine Mandate Dropped Without Discipline

On March 3, 2022, the Nevada DOC rescinded plans to terminate employees who violated its COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The agency had set a deadline for all employees to be inoculated by November 1, 2021, threatening those who refused with firing. As a result, over 83% of guards and other staffers were vaccinated by then.

But 361 of DOC’s 2,400 employees requested exemptions. The majority of those were denied, and letters of reprimand began going out, setting employment termination proceedings in motion for some. By late January 2022, even with a quarter of guard positions vacant and the third wave of the pandemic clocking records for staff sick leave, DOC Deputy Director of Operations Bill Gittere insisted the department was ready to proceed with disciplinary action.

By March 2, 2022, however, DOC reported that no employees had yet been terminated. The next day, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) announced that his temporary regulation mandating vaccination for state employees had expired, and state lawmakers had failed to pass a permanent regulation. That left DOC with little to do but suspend all those suspensions and start plucking reprimand letters from employees’ files.

In Arkansas, a Lawsuit Over Giving Jail Detainees Horse De-wormer

A suit filed in January 2022 by the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and attorneys with Little Rock’s Rose Law Firm asked the federal court for the Western District of Arkansas to find that the treatment four detainees received after coming down with COVID-19 in the Washington County Jail was unconstitutionally bad: Without their knowledge, the four were given Ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug used to de-worm livestock, one the federal Food and Drug Administration had previously issued warnings not to use in treating COVID-19 in humans.

The strange story of what happened to the four men—Dayman Blackburn, Julio Gonzales, Jeremiah Little and Edrick Floreal-Wooten—began when they tested positive for COVID-19 at the jail in November 2020. The head of the jail’s privately contracted healthcare provider, Dr. Robert Karas of Karas Correctional Health, began treating the men twice daily with a combination of drugs he said contained “antibiotics,” “steroids,” and “vitamins.” What he didn’t tell them was they were also getting Ivermectin, even though the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had cautioned it was “not authorized or approved” for COVID-19 treatment.

In fact, the detainees’ suit noted, it is not even an antiviral, rendering it useless against the virus that causes the disease. The men said the “incredibly high doses” they were given caused diarrhea, bloody stools, stomach cramps, and vision problems. They found out they’d taken the drug only after Karas posted their treatment on Facebook—where misinformation about Ivermectin’s use to battle the disease was rampant—and Sheriff Tim Helder then confessed what had happened to the county’s Quorum Court Finance and Budget Committee.

“What we are seeking is a declaration that this was unlawful, and they cannot continue to do this,” said Holly Dickson, Arkansas ACLU Executive Director.

The case remains pending at the Court, where it was consolidated on June 16, 2022, with the complaint of a fifth jail detainee, Thomas Fritch, who also alleged he was surreptitiously treated with the drug. Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Bourgon B. Reynolds, Luke E. Vance and Ryan Smith of the Rose Law Firm. See: Edrick v. Helder, USDC (W.D. Ark.), Case No. 5:22-cv-05011.  

Sources: ACLU, Nevada Independent, Prison Policy Initiative, WSYM


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Edrick v. Helder