Jails and prisons across the nation are reeling from the challenges and chaos they face as the virus begins to infiltrate their restricted, close-quartered environments, creating a level of vulnerability similar to cruise ships and nursing homes.
“Unfortunately we are not the public school system, we cannot shut down. We can’t say to the inmates, we want you to go home and once this dies down, we’d like you to come back,” said Elias Husamudeen, union president for officers who work in the New York City Department of Correction. “We can’t do this through Google. We literally have to be here — and they do too.”
Medical experts said the inmate population is particularly susceptible to infection. They live in a stressful environment, have a poor diet, can have chronic illnesses and are sometimes elderly.
“You have an artificial environment which is at a high risk for transmission … the same you have in military barracks and dormitories,” said Josiah D. Rich, a physician and professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University who co-founded the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. “But the population you have [in prisons] is not a young, healthy population. It’s aging.”
In recent weeks, jails and prisons have suspended visitations and pledged to increase cleaning and sanitation. They have also promised to conduct regular screenings of inmates and staff, checking temperatures and asking whether they have flu-like symptoms. Advocates for the incarcerated say they fear the coronavirus could cause devastating effects if it spreads inside correctional facilities.
More than 2 million people are incarcerated in a prison or jail, according to federal statistics. That does not include the regular flow of officers, other staff, attorneys and visitors who make their way in and out every day.
Kevin Kempf, director of the Correctional Leaders Association, said that to protect inmates and staff, about half of its 58 members have chosen to shut down visitation at the prisons they manage. It’s a difficult decision that causes tensions to rise, so many have put it off as long as they could, he said.
“Our directors are wringing their hands over this,” Kempf said. “It’s a switch that is hard to unflip, and we are hearing that coronavirus will be peaking in about two months. That’s a long time. We don’t want to see tensions rising at a time like this. It’s gut wrenching.”
Many prisons and jails have suspended visitation in the past two weeks. In many cases, if inmates were not already provided with free phone calls to family, they are now being provided.
At the New York City Department of Correction, officials did not suspend visitation until Sunday, the day before the prison inspector died, even though the union for correctional officers had been calling for it for days.
New York state shut down visitations on Saturday until at least April 11, a move officials said did not extend to legal visits. Texas also said it was cutting off visitations “until further notice” at its state-run facilities, adding that employees who feel ill or have a fever must remain home.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which manages the state’s prisons, announced Sunday it was suspending family visitation to adult facilities on Monday “until further notice.”
Local jails have also announced similar measures, including in Cook County, Ill., which includes to Chicago, where officials halted visits beginning March 15. In San Mateo County, Calif., south of San Francisco, the sheriff’s office said it would suspend “all contact visits with inmates” and screen people outside the facility who are arrested.
Correctional officers at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is responsible for more than 175,000 inmates, asked the bureau two weeks ago to shut down visitation for family and friends and to have attorneys for the inmates speak to their clients by phone. On Friday, the bureau suspended visitation for the next 30 days.
“They responded late — but they responded,” said Joe Rojas, southeast regional vice president for the Council of Prison Locals. “The fact that they finally took action is a good thing, but this is a Band-Aid. This is not going away.”
Rojas said officers are not being provided with basic protective gear and supplies. Most are bringing in their own alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer — if they are able to buy the products. Masks, he said, are also in short supply.
Staffing shortages are also a concern. Within the system of 122 prisons, he said, dozens of them already have a severe officer shortage. The prisons’ janitors, electricians and nurses routinely walk prison wards, backfilling to help with the shortfall.
“What if staff gets sick and they can’t come to work? Are you going to put everyone on lockdown?” Rojas said.
In a statement, spokesman Justin Long said the bureau is following coronavirus guidelines from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the World Health Organization.
“There are no known cases of COVID-19 among Bureau of Prisons inmates at this time,” Long said. “Out of an abundance of caution, the BOP provided guidance to health care professionals throughout the system and has a screening tool in place for use in the event an inmate or staff member is exposed or symptomatic.”
Long also said that the bureau has an ample supply of cleaning, sanitation and medical supplies and that prisons with supply concerns should contact the bureau. Only alcohol-free products are provided to prisoners, he said.
“While inmates are not provided with hand sanitizer because of its alcohol content, they are encouraged to wash their hands frequently with soap and water in accordance with the CDC’s guidance,” he said. “There is no shortage of hand soap for either staff or inmates.”
Long said the bureau has made preparations to move staff to other institutions if there are staffing shortages. But Rojas said this has been difficult in the past, because most officers and staff live in remote regions and cannot easily transfer to other facilities.
Advocates have also pushed for releasing people who are behind bars to lessen the potential pool of people who might get infected there. The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana called for speeding up parole hearings for elderly state prison inmates, as well as “the immediate release of people who are being jailed pretrial based solely on their inability to pay bail.”
In Delaware County, Pa. — where a prison employee at George W. Hill Correctional Facility tested positive and 30 are quarantined — the public defender’s office on Monday identified 31 prisoners over the age of 60 who it says are a low risk to the public.
“One of the prisoners is 80 years old,” said Emilio “Skip” DiMatteo, the acting director of the office. “We are hoping to release them as soon a possible.”
In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, jail and court officials are also working to shrink their inmate population — using “Saturday court” — so they can free up jail space to isolate inmates who may develop symptoms. So far, they have shrunk the population from about 2,000 inmates to 1,700 inmates.
“We are trying to expedite cases for nonviolent offenders,” said Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Brendan J. Sheehan. “The message has to be perfectly clear. We are not opening the doors and saying prisoners can leave now.”