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Grant Whittington headshot

Prisons and Surrounding Communities at Huge Risk to COVID-19


As the number of worldwide COVID-19 cases climbs toward the one million mark and politicians scramble to find solutions to curb the toll, there’s one place where an outbreak seems inevitable if the response remains negligent: jails. In the early stages of the virus, the nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated in 7,000 jails in the U.S. were largely left out of the equation, remaining an afterthought despite concerns that an outbreak could prove disastrous in such confined facilities. Furthermore, many of these prisons are located in rural areas, where healthcare services are often lacking – which leaves the communities and residents surrounding these prisons vulnerable in the event they become exposed to an outbreak.

Slowly, states are now stepping up to ensure the safety of their inmates and prison staffers, but there remains no nationwide protection or order to keep those behind bars out of harm’s way – including for the three leading private companies managing prisons across the U.S.

While more companies are extending their help in larger cities as a response to this pandemic, these remote areas in the U.S. are at risk of being forgotten and defenseless if COVID-19 cases surge.

More states are releasing prisoners early

To date, New Jersey has put forth the most sweeping inmate release plans, pledging to release as many as 1,000 people in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Iowa has followed suit, promising to release around 700 inmates who were already considered eligible for release by the state’s parole board. 

At a more local level, many counties, progressive and conservative alike, have taken matters into their own hands, releasing non-violent offenders who are deemed particularly vulnerable to the virus. Cuyahoga County in Ohio (Cleveland), Alameda County in California (San Francisco) and Washington County in Oregon (Portland) have released more than 1,200 inmates combined. Such releases free up space in the overcrowded prisons and jails, leaving inmates the ability to heed health officials’ warnings and more properly distance themselves from fellow offenders. 

Of course, it’s great to see states and counties taking action to protect their inmates. But when we look at the big picture, it’s hard to ignore that a few thousand inmates granted early release is but a drop in the ocean of the 2.3 million prisoners still behind bars. And in a system synonymous with substandard medical care and overcrowding, there’s reason for concern.

COVID-19 is already hitting prisons, and that should worry you

The virus, in fact, has already reached correctional facilities. According to reporting from The New York Times, there were more than 350 cases confirmed between New York, California, Michigan, Alabama and a dozen other states. But beyond the lack of availability of tests that may be underreporting the numbers, fear of isolation and solitary confinement has prisoners hiding their symptoms, according to the AP

New York City, which remains the epicenter of the virus in the United States, owns the highest clip of infected prisoners and staffers, with a combined nearly 250 testing positively for COVID-19. An estimate by a group petitioning New York’s Supreme Court said that the virus’s attack rate on the state’s infamous Rikers Island is 85 percent higher than that of the average U.S

As Samantha Michaels of Mother Jones reported, the inmates in Rikers, the second largest correctional facility in the U.S., are on edge. Inmates have inadequate access to cleaning supplies like wipes and soap and sleep in overcrowded dorm-like cells with as many as 60 other men, making it near-impossible to social distance. 

“The anxiety level is extreme,” Kenny, an inmate at Rikers told Michaels. “This feels like a death sentence.”

New York City, largely behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s directive, has released 400 people in the city jail system, most of whom were scheduled for release in the next 90 days despite the crisis. But this remains far too few if officials intend to curtail the mass spread in hot spots like Rikers. 

A letter dated March 21 from the NYC Board of Corrections urged the Mayor to “follow your colleagues...and take action now to release people from city jails.” The committee called for the immediate release of inmates older than 50 years old or those with underlying health conditions as well as those detained for administrative purposes or serving sentences under one year for low-level offenses.

The concerns extend beyond the state and local levels. At a national scale, 14 senators from both parties sent a letter to the Justice Department asking for the home release of inmates 60 years or older who have served two-thirds of their prison term. This request follows the guidelines set forth in the Elderly Home Detention Pilot, which was introduced as part of the First Step Act, the 2018 bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. Uptake and implementation of this pilot, however, has been slow from the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as they’ve mounted fears that this early release pilot may include serious offenders.

The feds got the memo, but who will be released?

Attorney General William Barr on Thursday reacted with a two-page memo of his own, written to the Director of Bureau Prisons. “There are some at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement rather than in BOP facilities,” he wrote. 

While it’s encouraging to see Barr request action, the Marshall Project notes that the policy set forth by Barr in the memo would disproportionately exclude black men from release. Inmates released would be those who score the lowest on the “risk assessment” algorithm named PATTERN - this algorithm deems white collar crimes “safer” than other crimes.

There’s no telling at this point how dire the inmate situation could become. We do know, however, that thousands of inmates living in tightly confined corners sharing cells, bathrooms, sinks, you name it, with limited access to proper cleaning supplies, healthcare and masks is a recipe for disaster. 

Image credit: State of California/Wiki Commons

Grant Whittington headshot

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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