Written by Angela Martin and Fiona Guy
The COVID pandemic has affected every sector, and the prisons department has not been spared. Prisoners and staff, including chaplains, nurses, and corrections officers, are among the high-risk groups, as they can easily contact and spread the virus. Prisons are crowded indoor spaces providing an ideal breeding ground for a contagious virus. The inability to practice social distancing and quarantine brought by overcrowding has imperiled the lives of several incarcerated persons both in prisons and in jails.
In a recent study at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it was found that those locked up in jails and prisons contact the virus 5.5 times more than the general US population. More than 160,000 inmates and prison staff have been affected by the virus, with more than 1000 deaths.
“The reality of these findings shows that we aren’t coming anywhere close to meeting their basic needs. Ultimately, it creates a dangerous situation for the inmates, prison staff, the communities that prisons are located in, and in our overall effort to contain the crisis.” – Lead Author Brendan Saloner, PhD. Associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School.
Before highlighting the responses from various prisons to the virus, below are some serious problems within the prison systems exposed by this pandemic.
Overcrowding is one of the most significant factors promoting the spread of the virus in the prison cells. There are around 2.3 million people in prisons across the US including state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, and juvenile correctional facilities.
Most prisons have incarcerated more people than they were designed to hold. As such, crowding in cells and dorms is a common phenomenon, with some rooms packing beds that are inches apart. This makes it impossible for prisoners and prison staff to observe Coronavirus health guidelines such as social distancing. It also becomes impossible to quarantine such a large population.
The Marshall Project highlights data from 2016, the most recent year where this data is available, showing almost 150’000 prisoners in US state prisons were 55 years old or older. This represents 12% of the prison population, a significant portion of incarcerated individuals. This results from decades of sentencing practices, often designed to show a tough stance on crime.
According to WHO stipulations, older people are at high risk of developing complications and dying from the virus. “By age 50, incarcerated people tend to suffer from health problems more commonly seen in people many years older.” the Marshall Project writes. Older adults can be less mobile and have significant health conditions which combined with their age, putting them at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19. The older population in prisons have poor health living conditions and often limited access to medical services, further increasing the risks.
Prisons Response to the Virus
As governments and health organizations provide public health guidelines aimed at flattening the COVID-19 curve, prison systems are also trying to adjust their regulations to minimize the spread and impact of the virus within prison walls. Some of the measures include;
Prison and Jails Releasing People
As mentioned, prisons and jails house a huge population, including those with chronic diseases and medical needs that make them vulnerable to the virus. The best way of protecting such people is by reducing overcrowding in these correctional facilities. Many prisons are following some state regulations to ensure that those with petty and minor offenses are released or have their cases pushed forward. Among the states that have made such changes in their prisons include;
- California’s state introduced an emergency bail reducing bail amounts to $0 for low-level felony and misdemeanor offenses. As such, finding a good lawyer who can fast-track bail hearing for individuals with such offenses is crucial.
- Detroit officials have implemented several steps aimed at reducing jail populations. Sentencing judges released 384 prisoners from the Wayne County Jail, law enforcers reduced arrests, and Circuit County court signed more than 200 administrative releases.
- The Massachusetts Supreme Court authorized the release of prisoners held with non-violent offenses, parole violations, and technical probation.
- The number of prisoners in Colorado also reduced following the release of prisoners aged 60 years and above, pregnant, with low bond amounts, underlying health conditions, and those with 60 days or less remaining in their jail terms.
Reducing Prison Admissions
Besides releasing prisoners already in custody, lowering admissions can also lower infections as it avoids overcrowding and minimizes the movement in and out of jails. Reducing admissions lowers the risk of transmitting the virus into the already overcrowded prison population and regulates the prison population to a number that the facility can provide appropriate medical care. Some steps taken by various prisons to reduce admissions include;
- Illinois introduced an executive order halting new admissions into prison facilities.
- The Jefferson County Sheriff announced the limitation of admissions to violent felons without bonds.
- The Oklahoma corrections department announced the suspension of admissions of newly sentenced prisoners to minimize the spread of virus behind prison bars.
Reducing Face to Face Contact
Another stringent measure to minimize the spread of COVID-19 into prisons is reducing unnecessary visits and check-ins for those in probation, parole, and registries. Since most facilities have completely suspended visits, they have supplemented the loss by waiving phone calls and video communication fees for inmates to check on their family members frequently.
High coronavirus cases in prisons stem from overcrowding and various prison system challenges that should be addressed. However, as most facilities put in place measures to contain the virus, prison staff, and health professionals working in prisons should also be recognized as a key workforce in response to the virus. As such, they should receive the necessary support, education, and equipment to supplement their efforts.
The World Health Organisation advises that screenings for newly admitted prisoners to pick up on any symptoms of the virus, and a system to assess risks for those who work in prisons should be put into practice. Preventing the virus from getting into the prison and spreading is a huge challenge requiring adjustments and changes to current policies and day-to-day practice.
Just as the world is battling with this virus trying to adapt their workplaces, homes, and their own personal movements, prison systems have not escaped the desperate need to change in order to protect against COVID-19.
- Chen, M. (May 29, 2018) By 2030, 1 in 3 US Prisoners Will Be Over 50. The Nation.
- Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. (2020, July 8). COVID-19 cases and deaths in federal and state prisons significantly higher than in general U.S. population. ScienceDaily.
- Rich, J., Allen, S and Nimoh, M. (March 17, 2020) We must release prisoners to lesson the spread of coronavirus. The Washington Post.
- Sawyer. W., and Wagner. P. (March 24, 2020) Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html Criminal Justice.
- World Health Organisation (April 09, 2020) Prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention. WHO/Europe.