Weekly Update: September 28, 2021

COCHS Weekly Update: September 28, 2021

Highlighted Stories

Grant Makers in Health: The Unseen Provider: COVID-19 Reveals the Hidden Link between Correctional and Community Care
Dan Mistak, COCHS' Acting President and Director of Health Care Initiatives for Justice-Involved Populations, writes: COVID-19 hit jails and prisons particularly hard. Under normal conditions, carceral settings are ideal environments for infectious disease spread. But federal law does not allow for an individual who is incarcerated to receive Medicaid services, even though they may be otherwise eligible. The so-called “inmate exclusion” has meant that at people’s most challenging times, they lose access to the services and drug formularies that they may need. There are several bills in Congress that tackle the so-called Medicaid inmate exclusion. These bills have received a wide range of support from the National Sheriff’s Association to the American Medical Association. It is clear that momentum has shifted towards changes to this policy.

CDC: Outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2 (Delta) Variant Infections Among Incarcerated Persons in a Federal Prison — Texas, July–August 2021
The fast-spreading delta variant ripped through a federal prison in Texas over the summer, infecting both the unvaccinated and fully vaccinated populations, but few were hospitalized. Among the 233 incarcerated people at the prison, which wasn’t named, 185, or 79%, were fully vaccinated against Covid19, according to the new report, published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. From July through August, 172 incarcerated people, or 74% of the federal prison’s population, were infected with Covid, according to the CDC. The delta variant hit the unvaccinated harder.

Council of State Governments: More Community, Less Confinement
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every part of the criminal justice system. State prison populations shrank by an unprecedented 14 percent during 2020. In just 12 months, roughly 167,000 fewer people were in state prisons. The population decline in state prisons was primarily driven by a drop in the number of people being admitted to prisons. Despite the reductions seen during the pandemic, supervision violations remain a large portion of prison admissions and account for a substantial share of prison populations. Keeping people safely in the community and out of prisons could save billions. If states sustain a reduction of 57,000 fewer people incarcerated for supervision violations each year, they could save an estimated $2.7 billion annually.

PEW: States Can Shorten Probation and Protect Public Safety
Although probation was originally conceived as an alternative to incarceration, criminal justice officials, policymakers, and other stakeholders increasingly acknowledge that keeping people on probation longer than is needed to deliver public safety benefits carries unnecessary and unproductive costs and wastes scarce resources. At its best, probation—court-ordered correctional supervision in the community—gives people the opportunity to remain with their families, maintain employment, and access services. But the growth and size of this population have overloaded local and state agencies and stretched their resources thin, weakening their ability to provide the best return on taxpayers’ public safety investments, support rehabilitation, and ensure a measure of accountability.

Electronic Frontier Foundation: The Catalog of Carceral Surveillance: Mobile Correctional Facility Robots
Federal officials and correctional departments nationwide have cited lack of staff as one of the biggest contributors to inmate and employee safety, and as articulated in its patent, GTL has imagined a future where coordinating robots, outfitted with biometric sensors and configured to identify “events of interest,” will help to fill the gap. Notorious for overcharging inmates for phone calls, GTL, like its major competitor Securus, has been dreaming up new offerings since federal efforts to rein in prison phone costs.

COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

Los Angeles Times: A champion of COVID-19 vaccines, Newsom fights plan to mandate them for prison guards
Seeking a vaccine mandate for all state prison guards and staff, a federal court-appointed receiver overseeing the medical care of California’s prisons argued Friday that there have been 11 coronavirus-related deaths since August among corrections employees who were not fully vaccinated and outbreaks at 21 prisons. But Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have continued to fight the request to mandate vaccinations for all corrections guards and staff.

NNY 360: Judge tosses correctional officers’ restraining order request on vaccine mandate
A U.S. district judge dismissed nine state security guards’ request Thursday for a temporary restraining order against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state health care workers who directly work with patients. Judge Brenda Sannes of the U.S. District Court in the state’s Northern District dismissed the request early Thursday evening. The decision was not immediately available. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Aug. 16 all patient-facing health workers in the state must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Monday, Sept. 27.

Tahlequa Daily Press: Sheriff says he won't mandate vaccine
The Cherokee County (OK) sheriff is now one of many sheriffs to issue a statement saying he will not mandate the COVID-19 vaccine despite President Joe Biden’s recent mandate. On Sept. 20, Sheriff Jason Chennault said he hadn’t felt the need to issue a public statement regarding his stance on the vaccine, but it’s something he’s been asked about recently. “I will not enforce my employees to get vaccinated. I will not enforce the public to get vaccinated. I’ve been asked that several times and my answer has always been no throughout the whole thing,” said Chennault.

COVID-19 Delta Surge

West Hawaii Today: Public defender tells high court prison situation ‘dire’
Deputy Public Defender Jon Ikenaga told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday the current COVID-19 situation in Hawaii’s jails and prisons is “significantly more dire” than in August 2020 when the court issued an order to decrease populations in correctional facilities in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Santa Maria Times: 18 Santa Barbara County Jail inmates test positive for COVID-19
More than a dozen additional Santa Barbara County Jail inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak that has infected more than 80 people since August, according to a sheriff's spokeswoman. Thirteen positive results came back, according to sheriff's spokeswoman Raquel Zick. Jail staff also conducted five-day antigen testing for inmates who had tested negative for the coronavirus, with five of those tests coming back positive.

San Francisco Chronicle: State's largest ongoing prison COVID outbreak linked to staff member; early quarantine release questioned
State officials have linked a quickly spreading coronavirus outbreak at a Central Valley prison to an infected staff member, but would not say whether the employee was vaccinated. The spike at North Kern State Prison, which jumped to 137 active cases as of Friday from 15 two weeks ago, coincided with the premature release of 51 prisoners from mandatory 14-day quarantine into the facility’s general population earlier this month. Prison officials recommend vaccinations to prisoners and employees, but they are not mandatory. Some prison health care staff will be required to have vaccinations by Oct. 14.

Rikers Island

New York Times: ‘The Whole Thing Upsets Me’: Mayor Finally Visits Rikers
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Rikers Island on Monday amid growing skepticism from federal and state lawmakers about New York City’s ability to grapple with the continuing crisis at the troubled jail complex. Eleven people who were held in custody at Rikers this year have died, and rampant staff absenteeism has led to dangerous conditions for detainees and workers alike, with incarcerated people saying they are being denied access to food, water and medical and mental health care.

New York Times: Members of Congress Urge Biden to Intervene at Rikers as de Blasio Plans Visit
A group of congressional Democrats from New York called on President Biden on Friday to use federal resources to address the crisis at Rikers Island, expressing a lack of confidence in the city’s ability to restore order to the jail complex. It said that the situation at Rikers Island, where 11 people who were being held in custody have died this year, was a humanitarian crisis that posed a civil rights threat to the more than 5,000 people being housed there. Shortly after news of the letter emerged, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would visit Rikers Island next week.

New York Times: ‘I Just Want to Be Normal’: A Mentally Ill Man’s Death at Rikers
When Esias Johnson moved to New York from his hometown in 2019, chasing dreams of musical stardom, his parents were terrified. Mr. Johnson, then 21, had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a child and suffered from mental illness for much of his young life. Johnson was one of many people living with mental illness who ended up at Rikers Island. The cause of Mr. Johnson’s death on Sept. 7 remains under investigation. He had spent the days before begging for medical attention. His death was the 10th in the city’s jail system this year.

NBC: 2nd Rikers Inmate in 3 Days Dies in Custody, 11th This Year, as Closure Demands Mount
A second person in three days has died in custody at New York City's troubled Rikers Island jail complex, marking the 11th such death so far this year amid mounting calls from congressional representatives and advocates to close the facility for good. Officials said the individual appeared to be in medical distress and medical emergency protocols were activated, though no other details on the case were immediately released pending the completion of a full investigation.

New York Times: 12th Death in Custody This Year Signals Growing Crisis in N.Y.C. Jails
A man who was being held at a New York City jail died on Wednesday, becoming the 12th person in city custody to die this year. Stephan Khadu, 24, died after being held at the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating jail barge that is docked just north of the Rikers Island jail complex, where the 11 other incarcerated people who have died were held. After appearing to suffer a medical problem, he was transported to Lincoln Hospital and was pronounced dead around 10:50 a.m., according to a statement from the Department of Correction. The cause of death is under investigation.

New York Times: Why Is Rikers Island Still Open?
During the past few months, Rikers Island has been the site of sequential atrocities so stark that this week four members of New York’s congressional delegation called for its immediate closure. Situated in one of the most forward-thinking cities on earth, Rikers — gradually and then seemingly all at once — has joined the ranks of the worst jails in the world. Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of New York State’s highest court, recommending a path to eliminating the complex by creating smaller community jails near courthouses around the city and drastically reducing the jail population. Four years after the Lippman Commission’s report was released, little progress has been made on the construction of those smaller jails.


Miami Herald: Critics say prison problems go beyond buildings
Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery on Monday to vote on a $1.3 billion prison construction plan. Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said unless the state takes on substantive sentencing reform and makes leadership changes, “we’ll just have shiny new buildings, with old problems.” The Department of Justice last year sued Alabama, saying the state prisons for men are “riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence.” The lawsuits came after the Justice Department issued reports describing a culture of violence and listed a litany of incidents including a prison guard beating a handcuffed prisoner in a medical unit while shouting, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” as the prisoner begged the officer to kill him.

Yahoo Finance: Alabama’s Scuttled Prison Deal Spurs Pivot to Bonds, U.S. Aid
Alabama may seek to use debt and federal aid to fix longstanding issues with its prisons after a controversial financing plan fell apart earlier this year. As part of plans to modernize correctional facilities, lawmakers could consider legislation authorizing the sale of up to $785 million in bonds for prison projects, according to the governor’s proclamation. It could also consider a bill that would authorize using up to $400 million in federal aid from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan and up to $154 million from the state general fund.

Bloomberg: Treasury Urged to Ban Use of Stimulus Aid to Build New Prisons
Activists and investors are asking President Joe Biden’s administration to ban the use of federal stimulus funds to build prisons in Alabama and elsewhere. Dozens of signatories, including the American Sustainable Business Council and Justice Capital, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other administration officials asking them to “explicitly prohibit any state, including Alabama, from using CARES Act, American Rescue Plan (ARP), infrastructure funds or any other federal dollars for prison construction projects.”

Montgomery Advertiser: In 1976, the feds took over Alabama's prison system. And Alabama's prisons improved.
In the early 1970s, Alabama's prisons were violent, decrepit, and crowded. The system had 3,698 inmates in prisons built to hold 2,212. Fountain Correctional Facility in Atmore, built to house 632 inmates, held over 1,100. Inmates there used their clothes as curtains to give a semblance of privacy in dormitories tightly crowded with bunks. A lawsuitled to almost 13 years of federal monitoring of Alabama’s prison system, and major changes in Corrections funding and training. The goal was not to correct abuses in an otherwise functioning system, it was to bring Alabama’s prisons up to minimum standards of order and cleanliness.

Racial Disparities and Opioid Epidemic

Eureka Alert!: Disparities in opioid overdose deaths continue to worsen for Black people, study suggests
Non-Hispanic Black individuals in four U.S. states experienced a 38% increase in the rate of opioid overdose deaths from 2018 to 2019, while the rates for other race and ethnicity groups held steady or decreased, according to a new study by the National Institutes of Health published in the American Journal of Public Health. These alarming data are in line with other research documenting a widening of disparities in overdose deaths in Black communities in recent years, largely driven by heroin and illicit fentanyl. The research emphasizes the need for equitable, data-driven, community-based interventions that address these disparities.

Transgender Issues in Corrections

NBC: Justice Department reviewing policies on transgender inmates
The Justice Department is reviewing its policies on housing transgender inmates in the federal prison system after protections for transgender prisoners were rolled back in the Trump administration. Under the Obama administration, the bureau’s policies for transgender inmates — known as the Transgender Offender Manual — called for that council to “recommend housing by gender identity when appropriate.” That language was changed in the Trump administration to require the committee to “use biological sex as the initial determination.”

Prison & Jail Conditions

Valdosta Daily: Families, witnesses detail toxic conditions at Georgia prisons
From 2001-18, 75 inmate deaths reported in Georgia’s state and federal prisons were attributed to homicide, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. In 2020-21 alone, more than 40 inmates deaths have been attributed to murder or suspected murder. The Southern Center for Human Rights sent a letter to DOJ in September 2020 asking the department to investigate the prisons' “deplorable” conditions, referencing the increasing murder and suicide rates, and neglect of persons with psychiatric disabilities.

Richmond Times Dispatch: State jail board's agreement with Riverside Regional Jail aims to correct problems that led to inmate deaths, hold jail accountable
An agreement signed Thursday between Riverside Regional Jail and the Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails will remain in effect for at least two years and aims to correct deficiencies in jail operations and medical care that a state jail review committee said may have been responsible for the deaths of three inmates in 2019 and 2020. The agreement details specific conditions to which Riverside Regional Jail must comply to avoid decertification and closure. Many of those conditions involve adhering to already established state correctional standards through measures designed to ensure compliance.

ideastream public media: Detainees In Cuyahoga County Jail Say Serious Problems Persist
Close to two years have gone by since a U.S. Marshals Service report laid bare inhumane conditions inside the Cuyahoga County jail. Just two weeks ago, a jury in Cleveland found former Cuyahoga County Jail Director Ken Mills guilty on four charges related to conditions at the jail at the time the report came out. The issues at the jail — a lack of medical care, insufficient access to drinking water and red zoning — were at the center of the case the state built against former jail Director Ken Mills.

Correctional Officer Working Conditions

Safety+Health: Toolkit aimed at curbing health decline among correctional workers
Noting that corrections officers have an average life expectancy that’s 16 years less than other occupational groups, the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace has created a mentoring toolkit aimed at combating a decline in health early in correctional workers’ careers. The Total Worker Health Mentoring Toolkit for Corrections Personnel is designed to be used by correctional organizations to organize a Total Worker Health mentoring program, recruit and train members, and evaluate the program.

Houston Public Media: Harris County Jail Employees File Federal Lawsuit Over Working Conditions
Employees of the Harris County Jail filed a federal class-action lawsuit this week accusing the county of refusing to properly fund and staff the facility. It asserts that as a result, employees are working extreme hours and mandatory overtime, which it says puts both them and jail inmates at risk and doesn't meet requirements set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. "There's so many knives and shanks that have been discovered, it's incredible that there's not more prisoners that have died and more employees that have not been stabbed," Harris County Deputies Organization President David Cuevas said.

WFPL: Louisville Corrections Officers Describe ‘Dumpster Fire’ Conditions At Downtown Jail
The union representing employees of the downtown Louisville jail held a community meeting Tuesday afternoon to address what members see as a growing crisis within the Metro Corrections Department. On the weekend of Sept. 11, there were an average of 15 corrections officers on duty for the roughly 1,600 people incarcerated in the jail. The president of the Metro Corrections union, Daniel Johnson, said a safe staffing level would be more like 55 to 60 officers.

Criminal Justice's Detrimental Impact on Mental Health

Vera: ICE’s Deadly Practice of Abandoning Immigrants with Disabilities and Mental Illnesses on the Street
There is no consistent policy or practice for the release of people who the government has deemed unable to advocate for themselves from immigration detention. As a result, attorneys report this pattern: people who have been declared mentally incompetent due to cognitive disabilities or mental illnesses are ejected from immigration detention facilities without any notice to their attorneys, families, or caregivers and are left to fend for themselves in places like parking lots and bus stations, with only the clothes they had when they were arrested and debit cards they often can’t activate.

San Jose Spotlight: Jail is no place for the mentally ill, Santa Clara County sheriff says
There’s a mental health crisis in Santa Clara County jails. Everyone agrees it’s bad, but Sheriff Laurie Smith isn’t sure people recognize just how bad it’s getting. The sheriff, who oversees the jail system, says what she sees worries her. In an exclusive interview with San José Spotlight, Smith estimates that approximately 25% of the county’s 2,393 inmates have a serious mental illness. As of Friday, 53 inmates are waiting for beds at psychiatric facilities, with the longest wait dating back to July 8.

Mental Health Initiatives in Criminal Justice

NBC: Preliminary Agreement Approved for Better Mental Health Care at Santa Rita Jail
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins preliminarily approved a settlement in a federal class action lawsuit against Alameda County over mental health care at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin and at any other Alameda County jail. The settlement will require sweeping changes at the jail, not only for people with psychiatric disabilities but for incarcerated people in general. Changes will be made over the next two years and the agreement will be in effect for six years, depending on the progress made. Besides mental health care, changes will be made to out-of-cell time, ADA accommodations at the jail for people with mental health disabilities, use of force, discharge planning and among other things suicide prevention.