Weekly Update: May 19, 2020

COCHS Weekly Update: May 19, 2020


COCHS and NAMI: A public health approach to COVID-19 and the health crisis in America’s criminal justice system
In association with COCHS and other partner organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sent a letter to the United States Senate Finance Committee, the United States Senate Health Education Labor & Pensions Committee, and the United States House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee in support of COCHS proposal for state and federal correctional health coordinators to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Recommendations

Infectious Disease Society of America: IDSA, HIVMA Call for Strengthened Detention Facility Responses to COVID-19
With data showing alarmingly high rates of COVID-19 infection among people who are incarcerated, the Infectious Diseases Society of America and its HIV Medicine Association today released policy recommendations to prevent and respond to the spread of the coronavirus in detention settings: Ensuring availability of preventive measures as well as diagnostic and treatment supplies and services; immediate action to reduce population density in correctional facilities; and optimizing access to Medicaid coverage to ensure appropriate testing and treatment.

Yale School of Public Health: Release Connecticut’s Prisoners? Health Experts, Activists Urge “Decarceration” to Slow Pandemic
Members of the Yale and local activist communities are coming together to urge Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont to depopulate the state’s prisons to combat the spread of COVID-19 and protect the state’s most vulnerable populations from the pandemic. More than 50 faculty members signed a letter to the governor recently, urging him to “thoughtfully release a substantial portion of the state’s prison population.”

COVID-19 Impact on Mass Incarceration

Politico: A Republican Crusader Takes on Oklahoma’s Prison Machine
Oklahoma has led the nation in the number of citizens it incarcerates, often in a neck-and-neck race with Louisiana. A June 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative declared Oklahoma “the world’s prison capital”—putting the tally at 1,079 people incarcerated per 100,000. From 2000 to 2010, the cost of corrections in Oklahoma soared 30 percent. The prison system remains so overloaded that the state’s Department of Corrections has requested $884 million to increase capacity by 5,200 beds.

The New Yorker: Will the Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration?
For decades, community groups have pointed out the social costs of mass incarceration: its failure to address the root causes of addiction and violence; its steep fiscal price tag; its deepening of racial inequalities. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed another danger of the system: its public-health risks. But the pandemic accomplished in weeks or months what activists had been working toward for decades, leading to large experiments in decarceration. Activists were heartened by the initial wave of mass releases this spring. But optimism gave way, for some families, to panic and indignation, as many facilities delayed reducing their populations and instituting safeguards, and coronavirus outbreaks began.

COVID-19 Early Release of Incarcerated People

The Los Angeles Times: California’s prisons and jails have emptied thousands into a world changed by coronavirus
State data show California’s prisons have released about 3,500 inmates while the daily jail population across 58 counties is down by 20,000 from late February. The exodus is having a profound and still-evolving effect: Those leaving custody enter a vastly different world in which a collapsed economy, scant job opportunities and the closure of many government offices have compounded the challenges of getting lives back on track. Reentry programs are struggling to meet the deluge of incoming inmates as the disease has forced them to close shelters and serve fewer people.

AP News: Common’s #WeMatterToo push urges jail releases amid virus
Rapper and activist Common concerned about incarcerated people he has met during visits to jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers around the U.S., launched a campaign with dozens of advocacy and activist groups calling attention to the threat that the coronavirus pandemic poses on millions of men, women and youths who are incarcerated in the U.S. The campaign, dubbed #WeMatterToo, is urging authorities to immediately release people who have served the vast majority of their sentences, especially if they have existing health conditions that put them at greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

San Francisco Chronicle: SF’s federal prosecutor eases requirements for sick inmates seeking early prison release
After a federal judge called the practice “appallingly cruel,” San Francisco’s top U.S. prosecutor said Friday his office will no longer require defendants pleading guilty during the coronavirus pandemic to wait at least 180 days before seeking release if they later become seriously or terminally ill in prison. The procedure known as “compassionate release” allows prisoners in federal custody, who are dying or gravely ill, to ask a judge to be transferred to home confinement, if the judge determines it would not endanger the public. A 2018 federal law allows the inmate to go to court 30 days after seeking release from the prison warden.

The New York Times: U.S. Prison Population Remained Stable as Pandemic Grew
The United States prison population remained stable in the early months of the year, decreasing by just 1.6 percent from January through March even as prisons emerged as incubators for the spread of Covid-19, according to a report released on Thursday. The prison population in five states — Idaho, Iowa, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming — was larger on March 31 than it was at the end of 2019. The steepest reduction was recorded in Vermont, where the prison population declined by 11.6 percent between Jan. 1 and March 31, followed by North Dakota and Oregon, where the number of prison inmates dropped by 9.8 percent and 8.3 percent.

The New York Times: Cycle of Arrests Leads Woman to Jail at a Dangerous Time
After failing to appear in court on traffic and other charges, a pregnant woman was detained overnight at a Montgomery, Ala., jail, where a coronavirus outbreak has occurred. Martha Morgan, a retired professor at the University of Alabama law school, said that the jailing of people for minor offenses, potentially exposing them to the virus, had put a spotlight on the persistent, underlying problems of poverty and the criminal justice system. The debate over which inmates should be released has played out across the United States, as officials try to balance public safety with public health concerns. In a high-profile example, Paul J. Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, was released from federal prison on Wednesday and granted confinement at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 Correctional Environments

Berkeleyside: How safe is Santa Rita Jail under COVID-19? Inmates and the sheriff paint very different pictures
Detainees in Alameda County jail say few people inside the jail are being tested. Based on their own experiences and the symptoms their cellmates are displaying, they believe the number of prisoners infected by the virus is much higher than the official count of 50 posted on the sheriff’s website. But the sheriff’s office said its efforts are among the best in the nation among jails and prisons. Alameda County Sheriff’s Sergeant Ray Kelly told Berkeleyside that inmates have been given adequate supplies of soap, PPE, and cleaning supplies, and the jail’s common areas are constantly cleaned and sanitized.

Arkansas Democrat Gazette: Prison's outbreak spreading unease outside the walls
More than 330 inmates at the prison have tested positive for the virus along with at least 17 staff members, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Last week, the surrounding St. Francis County recorded an uptick in positive cases, a troubling sign that the virus is spreading in the community.

COVID-19 Courts

The New York Times: Supreme Court Rejects Bid for Virus Protections in Texas Prison
The Supreme Court denied a request on Thursday from two inmates in a Texas geriatric prison to reinstate a trial judge’s order instructing officials to take steps to protect them from the coronavirus pandemic. As is the Supreme Court’s custom in ruling on emergency applications, its brief order was unsigned and gave no reasons. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, issued a seven-page statement expressing concern about the plight of the nation’s prisoners.

The Press-Enterprise: Riverside County to submit coronavirus inmate-care plan by May 20
Responding to a lawsuit alleging inadequate health care for inmates, Riverside County promised Friday to deliver by May 20 to the plaintiff a draft of a plan to care for inmates during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The plan will include provisions for testing, according to the document filed in U.S. District Court. The county is providing that information to the Prison Law Office, which in 2013 filed a class-action lawsuit that was settled in 2015. Then this April, as the pandemic took hold in the jails, the Prison Law Office asked U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips to enforce the terms of the settlement.

JDNews: Judge refuses to intervene in N.C. prisons’ virus response
A judge on Wednesday rejected requests of several offenders and civil rights groups exhorting him to tell North Carolina corrections leaders to reduce the prison population further to protect inmates from COVID-19. The denials from Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier came after he received an extensive report he demanded last week from prison officials on what wardens are doing to discourage the virus’ spread in the more than 50 prisons. The plaintiffs who are serving time behind bars have said in affidavits they were worried for their health if they remained in prison.

WILX: Judge releases 2 immigrants due to health risks at jail
A judge has ordered the federal government to release two immigrants from a jail in Calhoun County, saying their health is at risk from the coronavirus. The American Civil Liberties Union has had some success in winning the release of immigrants who have been locked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while awaiting deportation hearings or other steps.

The Colorado Independent: Federal judge orders Weld County sheriff to protect health of jail inmates during pandemic
A federal judge Monday ruled the treatment of inmates in the Weld County jail during the COVID-19 pandemic violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer ordered the county’s sheriff, Steve Reams, to identify inmates who have underlying health conditions and implement enhanced social distancing measures designed to protect them from the highly contagious disease. The order comes after the ACLU of Colorado and civil rights attorneys in April filed a class-action lawsuit in the federal district court on behalf of five inmates who have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, a disease that has infected at least eight inmates and four staff at the jail.

COVID-19 Testing

NBC-DFW: More Than 600 Inmates Test Positive for COVID-19 at Federal Prison in Fort Worth
Federal Medical Center Fort Worth has seen COVID-19 cases explode in number in recent weeks. As of Monday, 636 inmates at FMC Fort Worth had contracted the coronavirus, according to Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. Full coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it impacts you. That’s about 40% of the inmate population at the federal prison.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice: TDCJ deploying significant testing of asymptomatic population
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced that the state has acquired and is deploying tens of thousands of COVID-19 oral fluid tests manufactured by Curative, Incorporated. The tests were given approval in April by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization and will be administered at TDCJ prison units across Texas. These tests are designed to be self-administered by the person being tested.

Daily Camera: Coronavirus testing sparse at many of Colorado’s large jails as outbreaks continue to mount
Testing at Colorado’s largest jails remains limited and sporadic even as an increasing number of the facilities are added to the state’s list of confirmed outbreaks. With the exception of Denver, testing numbers at the state’s 10 largest jails remain in the double or single digits despite populations in the hundreds and daily churn of people booking in and out of the facilities. At least five of the facilities — Arapahoe, Pueblo, Mesa, Larimer and Boulder — had tested fewer than 10 inmates as of earlier this week.