Correctional facilities across the county are facing outbreaks of COVID-19 at rates that are higher than that of the overall U.S. population. Prisons and the pandemic have become a health risk due to the ease with which the virus spreads. At the core of the issue is the fact that large numbers of people are contained in close quarters at all times. Social distancing simply isn’t possible in many facilities due to the facilities running near or at population capacity most of the time. Prisons and pandemics are two things that do not go well together due to various factors that allow illnesses to take hold and run through a captive population.
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The coronavirus affects jails and prisons alike, but jails also play a role in causing community infections at a rate that’s higher than the rates caused by correctional facilities. Correctional officers, support staff and prisoners are all caught in a vicious cycle of transmission and infection. These conditions make it easier for the virus to spread and infect more people inside a correctional institution.
The number of infected prisoners is difficult to calculate due to suspected underreporting by facilities, lack of tests, and official numbers released by state and federal prison officials. The Bureau of Prisons states that a total of 12,330 inmates and 1,099 staff members have contracted coronavirus and recovered as of September 2020. What is known is that incarceration during COVID-19 puts inmates at higher risk of infection and mortality when compared to the population at large.
Why Jails Have Become a Cyclical Source of Infection for Prisoners and Community
Jails are are intended for short-term holds which means prisoners are typically incarcerated in holding cells with other inmates until their first court date. Prisoners that contract the virus during their incarceration may be released the next day until trial. That means an infected individual is let out into the community at large and becomes a spreader of coronavirus.
An infected individual will not know if they are sick with COVID-19 for as long as two weeks after incarceration, and may not take adequate precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. In fact, a spreader may rely on public transportation to reach their destinations, infecting even more people as they travel. If, for some reason, the spreader is incarcerated again before they show signs of infection, or have an active case of coronavirus, they bring the virus back into the facility and spread it to a new group of prisoners.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Prisons and Prisoners
One of the major problems correctional facilities face with incarceration during COVID-19 is the fact their populations are aging. Harsh sentencing guidelines from decades ago has kept more people incarcerated for longer periods of time. An aging jail population results in a higher at-risk population than the population at large. Much like how nursing homes were hotbeds of coronavirus infections, so are correctional facilities with a large population of older inmates. Unlike nursing homes, however, detention facilities are ill equipped to handle the containment of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Another issue that affects correctional institutions is the fact that the average prisoner tends to have a poorer quality of health due to the overall sedentary lifestyle of living in prison for long periods of time. Their bodies are ill-equipped to handle the ravages of COVID-19. Prisoners are far more likely to have a serious case of the virus than someone who is in better health and overall physical condition.
Outsiders bring the virus into detention centers and transmit their viral load to the people they’re visiting or guarding. The now-infected prisoner goes back to their living quarters and transmits the virus to other prisoners. The virus spreads faster because prisoners live in close proximity to one another and tend to be less healthy in general. Most detention facilities have differing levels of safety protocols. Those with lower standards of safety are ones that have higher rates of infections. The virus is extremely opportunistic and finds new people to infect almost as fast as it can replicate. It’s extremely infectious when provided with an environment of low safety and health standards. Both staff and inmates are at increased risk of becoming infected regardless of how good or bad their health.
How Detention Facilities are Dealing With the Pandemic
Prison pandemic plans for inmates vary from facility to facility, but the COVID in prison data is not looking promising in terms of keeping the rate of infection under control. Prisoners report struggling with social distancing and washing their hands, two important activities that minimize the spread of coronavirus. Corrections officers are required to wear PPE such as masks and gloves, but providing the inmate population with the same protections has been inconsistent.
Operators of correctional facilities tend to comply with local and state laws regarding the supply of PPE to inmates. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has provided guidelines, but these are non-binding. The following information covers the Bureau of Prisons due to the fact that state and local detention centers are inconsistent in terms of handling the transmission of COVID-19 within their facilities.
The Bureau of Prisons which handles federal prisoners and detention facilities, has provided guidelines for how federal prisons are to handle the inmate population. However, the BOP Phase 9 COVID Action Plan is more suggestive than it is directive. The BOP does direct that all employees are to follow OSHA guidelines on wearing PPE, but the BOP leaves the handling of prisoners to facility management.
The COVID Action Plan also allows groups of 100 inmates to gather at one time for exercise as long as the inmates are maintaining social distancing. Even though staff have a mandate to wear PPE, they are also at an increased risk of getting the virus from an inmate population that has a difficult time with maintaining distance, has no PPE and a decreased lack of opportunity to maintain cleanliness. Facility staff are also more likely to bring the virus home with them and transmit it to family members along with people they come in contact with.
Inmates who are new arrivals at a federal prison are tested for COVID-19 and placed into quarantine in a hospital isolation area. They stay there until symptoms are obvious or they have recovered from the infection and test negative, or they have passed a time-based hold. Prisoners are not allowed to travel during their period of quarantine, either.
Prisoners that are cleared for travel are typically handled by the U.S. Marshall’s service. This further complicates the prevention of transmission due to the fact that the BOP turns over control of an inmate’s movements to the U.S. Marshall. An inmate may or may not receive PPE during their transport and face increased risk of contracting the virus.
The BOP is encouraging the federal prisons to identify inmates that qualify for home detention using the CARES Act and Attorney General Guidelines. If a federal inmate meets the guidelines, they can request early release or home confinement from the detention center.
Justice and Prison Pandemic Plans for Inmates
When it became apparent that the pandemic was going to become a major problem, detention facilities started to take measures to reduce their overall populations in an effort to slow down its spread. Courthouses shuttered in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among staff and courthouse visitors. Judges still imposed bail for suspects which resulted in many people being sent to jail because they couldn’t pay the fee. As more time has passed, the justice system and detention facilities are working out systems that restore the flow of justice while minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on prisoners.
How States are Handling Their Prison Population
Many state governors have made decisions to limit and lower their prison population to reduce the overall amount of active cases of COVID-19 in prison. In some states, governors have signed edicts that prevent prisons from taking in new prisoners and finding alternative methods of monitoring people with convictions. States have also ordered their prison systems to go through prisoner records and determine which individuals are low-risk, have minor charges, and would qualify for compassionate release. The goal is to prevent inmate populations from increasing and actively finding ways to reduce the population by returning low-risk offenders back to their communities.
R. Kelly’s Case Highlights the Difficulties of Justice During COVID-19
One famous case that has been impacted by COVID-19 is the R. Kelly trial. The U.S. District Court Judge presiding over the trial has postponed one of the four trials that R. Kelly faces due to the estimated length of the trial and difficulty of getting witnesses to travel to Chicago for proceedings. Lawyers for R. Kelly are also having difficulties meeting with their client due to visiting restrictions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center where R. Kelly is being held before trial. R. Kelly’s lawyers are requesting that the singer be released due to COVID-19 concerns, but even if he were to be granted bail, he has other pending court cases that complicate his release.
The R. Kelly court case highlights the issues that the justice system faces during a pandemic. Some jurists are holding court through online meetings, but some courts have shut down entirely due to old technology that’s unable to handle virtual meetings.
Prison and justice systems around the country are being challenged by COVID-19’s ease of transmission and serious symptoms. It’s unknown as to when normalcy will return. In the meantime, prisons and courts have to deal with an invisible, shifting foe that makes it hard for them to operate normally.