UPDATE (3/17): American prisons and jails have started releasing inmates and detainees who are vulnerable to COVID-19. Chicago’s Cook County Jail announced the measure Tuesday. “While there are no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the jail, the sheriff’s office is doing everything in its power to release detainees who may be at great risk if they contract the virus,” sheriff’s office spokeswoman Sophia Ansari said in a statement, via the Chicago Sun-Times.
CNN reports that 200 low-level, non-violent inmates were released from Cuyahoga County Jail in Ohio since Friday. There are no reported cases of COVID-19 at that facility. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva also plans to release inmates and reduce arrests. There are no reported cases in that inmate population either. “This is about being prepared, not scared,” Villanueva said.
As events are canceled across the globe — and large gatherings are discouraged — prisons are attempting to stop the spread of COVID-19. California prisons recently axed daily visits, as did Minnesota and Florida, and New York implemented its own measures to more actively screen visitors.
Still, experts are not convinced that limiting visitors will be effective in halting the spread of COVID-19 to facilities — and, if it does hit, they’re concerned that prisons may not be equipped to handle it.
On Monday in New York State — where Governor Andrew Cuomo had issued a state of emergency — the Department of Corrections issued a release outlining new protocols for visitors and warning of increased wait times at its 54 facilities. “The health of staff, incarcerated individuals, visitors and volunteers is of utmost importance, and this procedure is being proactively implemented in order to avoid the introduction of COVID-19 into the Department’s facilities,” the release read.
All visitors will be asked a series of questions upon arrival about any illnesses or symptoms of illnesses they may be suffering from; recent travel and the travel of family members; and whether they’ve been directly exposed to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19. “The Department remains committed to ensuring family and friends are able to visit with loved ones, with as limited disruption to the normal visiting process as possible, while also actively working to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in New York State,” the release read, before advising people to wash their hands, avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth, and to sneeze/cough into tissues.
It’s all well and good that visitors be screened for coronavirus, but some experts, like Dr. Homer Venters, President of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, worry that such efforts are just not extensive enough. “If you look at the groups of people that come through correctional settings, you have the people who are incarcerated and then you have the visitors,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea to screen visitors, [but you also have to] do the same thing among the staff. The daily churn is far greater among the staff that are coming to work than it is among the newly detained people or even among the visitors.”
“As I see this tremendous focus on the visitors, it reminds me of other things we worry about in the jail and prison setting, like contraband,” he adds. “My experience is, when the exclusive focus is on the detecting then eliminating contraband coming in through visitation, we’ve missed what’s right in front of them.”
“All staff, security and civilian, have received the same guidance that all New York State employees have been issued, as well as guidance from DOCCS on how to prevent the spread of the virus and what to do if you have been exposed to it or are exhibiting symptoms,” the DOCCS tells Rolling Stone.
ACLU senior staff attorney Maria Morris is also worried about this focus on visitors when it comes to prisoner wellbeing. “We’ve been hearing a lot about limiting visitors, and we’re concerned about this. Visitation is important,” she tells Rolling Stone. “We want to be sure that prisons and jails are thinking carefully about what are just knee-jerk responses that do nothing but make life more difficult in the prison system. Visitation happens on limited days. It’s a limited number of people. What are the measures that they’re doing to screen the staff? That seems like a far more crucial question as far as how much interaction there is.”
“If they do feel the need and if they have a good evidence-based reason for cutting off visitation, what are they doing to make up for that?” she adds. “Are they enhancing video visitation for example? It’s important that [they] be thinking it through. Not just, ‘Oh, OK, let’s take away support that is really important to people who are in prisons and jails.”
Morris is currently in Arizona working on a separate case for the ACLU, but she’s spoken with inmates at prisons in that state about the conditions at their facilities, which she says are unsanitary. “To be honest, we didn’t see much of anything in terms of preparation,” she says. “Soap isn’t being provided in additional amounts; people have to purchase it from the commissary. Many people told us that they don’t have hygiene and cleaning supplies. Some people complained about not having towels. The basic hygiene things that are crucial for infection control were not being provided.”
The Arizona Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.
Governor Doug Ducey declared a public health emergency in Arizona on Wednesday in response to the spread of the coronavirus.
Dr. Lipi Roy, former Chief of Addiction Medicine for New York City jails including Rikers Island, also stressed that prisoners require access to such materials in a recent article she wrote for Forbes: “Correctional facilities— jails, prisons and detention centers — are the perfect breeding ground for the spread of infectious diseases of any kind — viral, bacterial, fungal, etc.” She added that clinics are often understaffed and healthcare is substandard when compared to what people receive on the outside. Plus, hand sanitizer is considered contraband in many facilities, since it contains alcohol.
On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo revealed that New York would be producing its own hand sanitizer, packaged by prisoners. Over 100,000 gallons per day will be produced for schools, the MTA, schools, and state buildings. Cuomo also said that it would be distributed to prisons, but did not specify if it would be made available to inmates; the Department of Corrections did not immediately reply to a request for comment. “I detect lilac, hydrangea, tulips,” he said when unveiling the product at press conference.
"I detect lilac, hydrangea, tulips," Cuomo said.
— Breaking911 (@Breaking911) March 9, 2020
The product is packaged by prisoners for Corcraft Products, an arm of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that makes various products using inmate labor. Corcroft Products did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment. Morris said that she didn’t see any inmates with hand sanitizer the Arizona facility, but she did see a guard with a bottle on his belt. She says that the product is one of many required to keep prisoners safe.
Moreover, she would like to see, in detail, what plans prisons have in place in case of infection, as some inmates work in the kitchens and prepare food for the rest of the population. “I think they really need to be developing pretty comprehensive plans,” she says. “They need to plan how to get hand sanitizer, soap, cleaning supplies to people. And warm water. Not all prisoners have ready access to warm water. They need to be in close contact with the public health department to talk through what are the measures that will effectively limit the entrance of the virus into the prisons and jails.”
As of Wednesday, there were no know cases of coronavirus at a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility, according to ABC News. “The Bureau of Prisons is providing information to staff and inmates regarding practicing good hygiene and other information regarding BOP’s initial and preventive preparations,” the Bureau told the news organization. “As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve, the BOP updates and refines its recommendations, guidance, and protocols, and will continue to provide helpful information to staff, inmates and federal, state and local partners.”
The BOP did not immediately reply to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
Roy pointed out in her article that some state facilities are being proactive: “The Philadelphia Prisons Department placed a medical quarantine for individuals entering its system,” she wrote. “New York City Department of Correction is planning for a possible outbreak at Rikers Island by screening all incoming individuals, and disinfecting showers, cells and transport buses more frequently.”
Still, Venters thinks it’s only a matter of time before COVID-19 makes its way into prisons and jails — and he’s not confident that they’re prepared. “I think that, broadly speaking, jails and prisons are completely unprepared for an adequate response to the coronavirus when it comes into the jails and prisons,” he says. “There’s really very little doubt that it will come into them.”
According to Venters, prison healthcare is siloed from the rest of the country’s services, and in order for preventative measures to be effective, they have to work in lockstep. “They’re basically designed to take care of one patient at a time and often do a very poor job of that,” he says. “They’re not systems that are designed to be integrated with community care.”
Morris also asserts that the criminal justice system should be taking a critical look in the days going forward at who they are incarcerating. “If the police arrest someone, is it necessary to book them into the jail? Do we need to have bail reform practices that are happening now?” she says. “Should we keep people in jail if they the only reason they’re there is because they can’t afford bail? Should they be sitting in a jail when they’re vulnerable, when they’re taking up bed space? How do we limit the number of people who are in facilities that don’t need to be?”