The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Omicron Winter
by Jo Ellen Nott
The latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus is affecting prisons and jails across the U.S. Just how bad is it during these winter months?
Omicron Out West: Looking Surprisingly Good
California reported 2,350 active prisoner infections as of January 10, 2022. The number was nowhere near the highs of the last two years, and most infections were clustered at three facilities averaging 400-500 infections each.
Hawaii reported cluster outbreaks in Wailuku and Maui, with the first prisoner case of an omicron variant infection made public on January 3, 2022. At that time, Hawaii had approximately 60 prisoners infected with COVID-19.
In Washington, the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention in Seattle had its largest spike of COVID-19 on December 27, 2021, with 20 cases reported, despite an ongoing campaign since March 2021 to vaccinate people in its three detention centers.
Colorado also saw some of its highest numbers of the pandemic, with the state setting and then breaking its single-day case record each of the last three days of December 2021. On January 4, 2022, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) reported 248 active cases, mainly at three state prisons.
Omicron Surprisingly Not Awful in South and Southwest
The Oklahoma DOC reported on January 11, 2022, that “its correctional facilities have largely been spared from COVID-19 in recent weeks.” The prison system had 17 active cases with no hospitalizations. Spokesman Josh Ward noted that 70% of state prisoners were fully vaccinated and 20% had received a booster as of January 4, 2022. DOC stopped tracking staff vaccination and infection numbers in spring 2021, citing difficulties in collecting data about testing and inoculations offsite.
Because of shorter holding times and the more transient nature of jail populations, we could expect infections rates there to be high. So, news from two eastern Texas jails was welcome: Both Cherokee County and Henderson County reported zero prisoner infections as of January 10, 2022.
Cherokee County Sheriff Brent Dickerson said his jail had 40 cases of the delta variant earlier in 2021 but his staff was able to “to shut that down with isolation and precautions.”
Henderson County Sheriff Botie Hillhouse tempered the good news from his jail by noting that 12 out 173 employees had tested positive.
The same day the two jails reported no prisoner infections, the Northeast Texas Public Health District reported that 41 Smith County Jail prisoners tested positive for the virus. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office reported 16 positive cases in the county jail, where seven of 18 dorms were under quarantine in mid-January 2022.
In neighboring Louisiana, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office reported 24 positive cases from the 861 prisoners in its jail on December 29, 2021. Gretna, just across the river, recorded just two positive cases among over 1,000 prisoners.
In Georgia on December 27, 2021, the news from the Thomas County Jail, near the Florida border, was that it had avoided major outbreaks throughout the pandemic. Cpt. Steve Jones, Command Staff officer in charge of communications, reported that the jail “had gone almost 16 months before [they] had an outbreak” in the summer of 2021, adding that even then “none of the inmates had to be hospitalized and only a few showed signs of illness.”
Florida Gave Up Reporting on Coronavirus in June 2021
The Florida DOC stopped emergency pandemic protocols including all reporting of testing, cases, and deaths, in early June 2021. The Orlando Sentinel reported on September 17 of that year that DOC did not respond to questions about reconsidering its plan to no longer update a COVID-19 dashboard but that “hundreds of prisoners have died in Florida prisons of COVID” while “more than 30% of those who died were eligible for parole at the time of their death.” Forrest Behne, the policy director for the COVID Prison Project, which tracks the virus nationally in prisons and jails noted, “It’s tough to sit with the fact that some of the most basic, foundational concerns are not really being answered.”
Omicron in the Midwest: Not Looking Good
Chicago’s Cook County Jail announced on January 10, 2022, that 850 prisoners and jail staffers had recently tested positive for the virus, a precipitous increase. The jail’s positivity rate stood at 33%. Officials said COVID-19 cases had quadrupled in one month, representing the highest level of infection since the pandemic began. Spokesperson Matt Wahlberg noted that most of the positive prisoners were not infected at the jail, with 63% of new cases discovered during intake. The Sheriff’s Office and its jail health care provider, Cermak Health, had prepared for the omicron wave by increasing testing, vaccinations and mitigation protocols, Walhberg said, adding that educational videos are played daily in the jail and vaccine information is placed on each tier of the facility. Jail staff is 77% vaccinated, as is 64% of the prisoner population. Breakthough infections accounted for 43% of the prisoner cases.
Missouri’s St. Louis County jail reported on January 6, 2022, that 110 prisoners and 30 staffers tested positive for COVID-19, though none had suffered serious symptoms or required hospitalization. Among prisoners, those 110 positive cases accounted for 13% of the incarcerated population.
During the week of January 12, 2022, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment noted 13 locations with five or more cases over the prior fourteen days in correctional facilities, including the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex, the Riley County Jail, the Shawnee County Jail and the Topeka Correctional Facility.
Wisconsin on January 7, 2022, reported that almost half the prisoners in the Milwaukee County Jail had contracted COVID-19 as the wildfire omicron variant shot coronavirus infections to record levels. The jail’s commander, Inspector Aaron Dobson, said that more than 400 of the jail’s 900 prisoners were positive, but he added that “the one good thing is that people don’t seem to get as sick from this variant. Most people are asymptomatic, which is very good.” The jail is moving infected prisoners into isolation and the entire unit is quarantined and tested five days later. The state DOC reported that the COVID-19 infection rate in December 2021 was ten times higher than the month before. John Beard, DOC spokesman, said that despite the sharp rise, the department had not seen an increase in serious illness. Beard noted the high rate of vaccination among the prisoners in DOC care: 82%. Nearly 7,000 of the 16,000 adults and youth in the system have received a booster shot. The DOC reported 466 active COVID cases as of the first Thursday in January 2022.
Omicron in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic: A Mixed Story
Maine reported on January 7, 2022, that there were 13 active cases at Maine State Prison among 649 prisoners. The month before, there were 21 cases. Numbers on the DOC’s COVID-19 dashboard showed that Maine State Prison was the only adult prison facility in the state with infected prisoners. Anna Black, director of government affairs for DOC, noted that 82% of incarcerated adults had been inoculated.
Vermont attributed a rise in COVID-19 cases to the omicron variant but reported only three positive cases among prisoners. Like detention facility scenarios in other states, staff in state prisons had a higher infection rate, with 33 positive tests, even though state DOC Commissioner Nick Demi said over 70% of the staff is vaccinated and that the unvaccinated undergo testing twice a week.
In Massachusetts, jails in the three Pioneer Valley counties—Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin—had not reported any serious illness or hospitalization due to the disease by January 12, 2022. The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department reported that same day that 74 prisoners tested positive and were quarantined. The Hampshire Sheriff’s Department reported that its only positive cases were seven among pre-trial detainees and that no one in the sentenced population had tested positive. In Franklin County, Sheriff Christopher Donelan reported 28 prisoners at the county jail were in medical quarantine after having tested positive. Donelon said, “It took two years for COVID to find us, but I think that (omicron variant) was too much for us to handle. The best chance is that staff brought it in. That’s what we have always feared.”
In New York City’s Rikers Island jail, one of the world’s largest detention institutions, it was a much different story on December 22, 2021, when the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive reached 17%, up from just 1% ten days earlier. DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi was blamed by the guard’s union for enforcing a vaccination mandate on guards but not on prisoners or visitors. Schiraldi has written to defense and legal aid groups in New York asking them to prevail upon the courts to release prisoners and halt admissions to the city’s jails. In a letter to public defender organizations on December 21, 2021, he said that “data indicates that the risks to human beings in our custody are at crisis level. All indications suggest that our jail population faces an equal or greater risk from COVID now as it did at the start of the pandemic.”
In New Jersey, the state DOC stopped in-person visits at its two dozen prisons and halfway houses on January 7, 2022, in response to the omicron variant, which was spreading across the state at record levels. That was just a day after Health Department guidelines on visits to detention facilities updated on January 6, 2022, said that officials were tasked with providing vaccines to prisoners and staff, testing regularly, distributing face masks and screening anyone who entered the facility.
Data on the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) website reported on January 17, 2022, that three percent of prisoners have COVID-19 and two are hospitalized. For the 30 days from December 16, 2021, to January 16, 2022, there were 113 average positive test results per day. Since the pandemic began, the state’s prisons and jails have recorded 56 deaths. On December 21, 2021, an unvaccinated prisoner in his late 70s with pre-existing conditions tested positive at Greene Correctional Institution, was hospitalized three days later when his conditioned worsened and died on January 1, 2022. The unnamed man’s death was the first COVID-19 mortality in DPS since May 2021. DPS said that 80% of its prisoners are fully vaccinated and 61% of its staff. Spokesman John Bull noted “as of Christmas about 75% of prisoners had been jabbed, mostly with the Moderna vaccine,” but he added that “the prison system is offering incentives to incarcerated people to get booster shots including extended television time, extended visits, and extended time to use tablets for prisoners in the seven prisons that are tablet-capable at this point.”
On the Federal Level, Trouble at Women’s Prison in West Virginia
On December 22, 2021, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported that 452 federal prisoners were positive for COVID-19 nationwide. Since the pandemic began, 273 of BOP’s 155,000 prisoners have died of the disease. On December 24, 2021, the federal institution with the worst outbreak was the Women’s Federal Prison Camp (FPC) at Alderson, West Virginia, a minimum-security lockup where 108 of the 665 prisoners had an active infection. Another 43 had recently recovered under conditions attorney Paul Petruzzi called “abhorrent,” citing a lack of hot water in the quarantine unit and staff shortages. Women at the prison are eligible for early release to serve the rest of their sentences at home for health reasons, and staff should be handling CARES Act paperwork to facilitate these early releases, but many women have had to take matters in their own hands due to lost or mismanaged paperwork, requests being denied without explanations and a lack of clarity about who is authorized to make the early-release decisions.
Omicron in U.S. ICE Centers Three Times Higher
On December 26, 2021, Vox reported on the vulnerability to omicron infection of immigrants detained in federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, saying that “it is only a matter of time before the virus spreads though detention centers.” Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that “vaccine access has improved since July of 2021 when some detention centers were not offering vaccination at all.” But in a letter released on December 15, 2021, the ACLU noted that “ICE has no coordinated strategy to ensure that detained people can receive COVID-19 booster shots, despite urgent need and ample notice.” ICE said that as of December 19, 2021, about 47,000 people it held at some point during the pandemic had received a jab. It was not clear what percentage of detainees that represents, nor the type of vaccine given nor the completion of the vaccination schedule because ICE does not release the information publicly.
The ACLU encourages citizens to press local jail authorities to identify as many people as possible for rapid releases and let them out, reduce arrests and prosecutions for low-level crimes to prevent jail population increases, require staff vaccinations, provide vaccine education and make tests and vaccines free of charge.
We will probably never have a full measure of the tragic impact the coronavirus has wrought in the jails and prisons. Not even such basic information as how many prisoners and staff have died from
COVID related illnesses. But as the New York Times pointed out in an April 2021 report on the pandemic, “prisons were built with security in mind and not to act as hospitals or hospices. Given the age and poor health of many inmates, they remain especially vulnerable to infection and illness.” But prisoners were dying of medical neglect and easily treatable illnesses in prisons and jails around the country long before COVID-19 existed and will continue to do so, given the governmental indifference to prisoner health, long after COVID-19 has faded into the past.
Sources: ACLU, BlockClubChicago.com, Bloomberg News, Colorado Springs Gazette, Connecticut Mirror, Delaware County Daily Times, Detroit News, Forbes, KDSK, KYTX, Los Angeles Times, Maine Beacon, Maui News, NJ.com, New Orleans Times-Picayune, New York Times, North Carolina Health News, OklahomaWatch.org, Orlando Sentinel, Pen-Yan Chronicle-Express, PubliCola News, Raleigh News-Observer, Springfield State Journal-Register, Vox, WALB, WCAX, WIBW, WISH, WNBC, Wisconsin Public Radio
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