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COVID-19’s Impact on Prisoners Far Worse Than It Needed to Be

by Kevin Bliss and Ed Lyon

In September 2021, a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit research and advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) gave a failing grade to 42 U.S. states for their efforts to mitigate the spread of the disease in their prisons and protect their vulnerable populations. PPI’s research showed that states refused to address basic health and mental-health needs of prisoners, and they avoided releasing large numbers of people who could have been safely returned home.

California and New Jersey did the most to help their state prisoners, PPI found. California had eliminated medical co-pays before the pandemic, and it then provided free hygiene products and video calls, plus some free phone calls, relieving some isolation during lockdowns.

New Jersey scored the highest among the nation’s prisons’ systems for vaccinating 89% of its prisoners and reducing its prison population by 42%. Illinois and Pennsylvania received the next-highest rankings for reducing prison populations during the 18 months data were measured.

However, studies by PPI, the Marshall Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) revealed relatively few people were released from U.S. prisons after the pandemic started. Although PPI found several prison systems changed policies to accommodate compassionate releases for those most vulnerable to the disease, most applicants were denied.

For example, Utah did not increase compassionate releases after the pandemic began, instead issuing puzzling denials like the one received by Jesus Gomez, 84, who is confined to a wheelchair and cannot even remember his crimes.

Nevada did not grant one compassionate release in 2020 because the state’s medical department could not find a qualified prisoner it deemed eligible.

Out of 28,000 prisoners that Alabama holds, only 15 recommended were for compassionate release and it was granted only to five. SPLC found that hundreds of the state’s oldest prisoners were eligible for parole but were either denied or still waiting for a hearing.

During the first ten months of the pandemic, Texas had almost 80,000 parole-eligible prisoners but released just 1,000. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles granted on average almost 6,000 paroles per month before the pandemic, meaning its numbers dropped by 74% as the disease spread.

The state, which has the nation’s largest prisoner population, did manage to reduce it by about 12% during the pandemic, thanks to releases and few new intakes. But California, which has the second-largest system, saw its number of prisoners plummet 25%, from 126,000 in March 2020 to 94,600 by that December—the first time in 35 years the state held fewer than 100,000. Florida, with the third-largest prison system, recorded a 20% drop in prisoners, from 101,000 in March 2020 to 82,000 by that December.

So what happened in Texas? It had plenty of parole-eligible prisoners, plus a release mechanism that could have reduced its prisoner population by over 50% in a matter of weeks. That the state chose to keep prisoners incarcerated during a deadly pandemic defies logic and compassion.

At the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), where an average of 300 prisoners died each of the five years before COVID-19 hit, the figure rose by over half to 462 deaths in the first 12 months of the pandemic. The second year, the death toll was 20 percent higher than that. In the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, Congress gave BOP broad authorization to release prisoners early to home confinement. Instead, eligibility requirements were tightened for many, and staff shortages slowed paperwork for the rest.

As of February 2022, just 6% of federal prisoners had been transferred to home confinement. Prisoner advocates such as Alison Guernsey, who directs the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Iowa College of Law, claim it could and should have been much higher.

In a particularly egregious example of deliberate indifference to the plight of prisoners, the Marshall Project reported that 346 out of 349 incarcerated women who applied for home confinement from the Federal Medical Complex (FMC) in Carswell, Texas, were denied. The FMC Carswell, located on a contaminated former air force base, is a special-needs prison, where every prisoner has a serious medical issue, like Marie Neba, 56, who suffered from stage four cancer. She was denied compassionate release only to die of COVID-19 in prison on July 3, 2020. 


Sources: Houston Chronicle, New Republic, NPR, Prison Policy Initiative


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