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Articles by Beth Schwartzapfel

Omicron Has Arrived. Many Prisons and Jails Are Not Ready.

Experts fear “another potential tinderbox scenario” akin to the early days of the pandemic.

by Beth Schwartzapfel and Keri Blakinger

In the Philadelphia jail, the number of COVID-19 cases has tripled in the last two months. In Chicago’s lockup, infections have increased 11-fold in the same period. And in New York, city jails are struggling with a mushrooming 13-fold increase in less than a month.

From local lockups in California to prisons in Wisconsin to jails in Pennsylvania, COVID-19 is once again surging behind bars, posing a renewed threat to a high-risk population with spotty access to healthcare and little ability to distance.

At this point it’s unclear whether the surge in infections is due to the highly contagious omicron variant. Still, as caseloads across the country skyrocket and omicron becomes the dominant variant, experts worry the coronavirus is once again poised to sweep through jails and prisons. As in the world outside prison bars, many incarcerated people are struggling with pandemic fatigue. They’re also facing uncertain access to booster shots, widespread vaccine hesitancy and pandemic-driven staffing shortfalls that have created even harsher conditions.

As with previous iterations of the virus, everything about prisons and jails makes them a setup ...

These Meds Prevent Overdoses. Few Federal Prisoners Are Getting Them

Three years after the First Step Act required the Bureau of Prisons to treat more people
with medications for opioid addiction, only a tiny fraction are receiving them.

by Beth Schwartzapfel, The Marshall Project

In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, a wide-ranging prison reform legislation that, among other things, required the federal prison system to expand access to medications for people addicted to opioids. Amid a historic spike in overdoses, both inside prisons and jails and in the country at large, the idea was to save lives: These medications reduce drug use and protect against overdose, and the weeks just after release are a particularly vulnerable time for formerly incarcerated people. 

The Act came with tens of millions of dollars for implementation. Yet bureaucratic inertia and outdated thinking about addiction treatment means the federal program is still serving only a tiny fraction of those eligible, The Marshall Project has learned. 

As of July, the Bureau of Prisons had only 268 people on medications to treat opioid dependence, according to Jeffrey A. Burkett, who helps oversee the rollout of the program as the National Health Services Administrator for the BOP. This is less than 2% of the more than ...

When Going to Jail Means Giving Up the Meds that Saved Your Life

How the Americans with Disabilities Act could change the way the nation’s jails and prisons treat addiction.

by Beth Schwartzapfel, The Marshall Project

Before Geoffrey Pesce got on methadone, his addiction to heroin and oxycodone nearly destroyed him: He lost his home, his job, custody of his son – and his driver’s license. So even after he began to rebuild his life, Pesce relied on his parents to drive him to a methadone clinic for his daily dose. One day last July, his mother was unexpectedly unavailable, and desperate not to relapse, he drove himself.

En route, Pesce was pulled over for going six miles above the speed limit and charged with driving with a suspended or revoked license, which carries at least 60 days in jail. Pesce began staring down the day he would plead guilty and, as mandated by the rules of the jail in Essex County, Massachusetts, stop taking the addiction drug that he said saved his life.

Most jails and prisons around the country forbid methadone and a newer addiction medication, buprenorphine, even when legitimately prescribed, on the grounds that they pose safety and security concerns. The drugs are frequently smuggled into facilities and sold ...

Out of Prison, Uncovered

Medicaid for ex-prisoners saves money and lives, but millions are released without it.

He had to see a doctor. He had only a month’s worth of pills to control his delusions and mania. He was desperate for insurance coverage.

But the state failed to enroll him in Medicaid, although under the Affordable Care Act Indiana expanded the health insurance program, making most ex-prisoners eligible. Left to navigate an unwieldy bureaucracy on his own, he came within days of running out of the pills that ground him in reality.

“I have a serious mental disorder, which is what caused me to commit my crime in the first place,” said Ernest, who asked reporters to use only his middle name to protect his privacy. “Somebody should have been pretty concerned.”

The health law was supposed to connect Ernest and almost all other ex-prisoners for the first time to Medicaid coverage for the poor, cutting expensive visits to the emergency room, improving ...

Life Without Parole

Life Without Parole

Inside the secretive world of parole boards, where your freedom may depend on politics and whim.

by Beth Schwartzapfel, The Marshall Project*

Reynaldo Rodriguez was 19 with a young son, a good job and no criminal record when he shot and killed a man. As part of ...

Modern-Day Slavery in America’s Prison Workforce

Why can’t we embrace the idea that prisoners have labor rights?

by Beth Schwartzapfel

Laurie Hazen has bad taste in men. “They’re my downfall,” the 41-year-old jokes in her Massachusetts accent. “I have to really stay single.” An ex-boyfriend first introduced her to prescription drugs, she says, a habit she ...

This Valentine’s Lingerie Is Brought to You By the Prison Industrial Complex

This Valentine’s Lingerie Is Brought to You By the Prison Industrial Complex

by Beth Schwartzapfel

With Valentine’s Day, perhaps you made a trip to Victoria’s Secret. If you’re a conscientious shopper, chances are you want to know about the origins of the clothes you buy: whether they’re sweatshop free or ...