Vikki Wachino's Written Testimony Before the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice
In her testimony before the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, Vikki Wachino, COCHS' CEO, described how people involved in the justice system face serious, growing, and disproportionate health risks from COVID-19 and that COVID-19 also poses serious risks to correctional staff. These risks are particularly significant for people who are Black or members of other minority groups, who are overrepresented in the justice system and disproportionately contracting and dying from COVID-19. To address these risks, Vikki proposed establishing Correctional Health Coordinators, adopting the Medicaid Reentry Act, and expanding support for and access to community-based physical and behavioral health services in disadvantaged communities.
National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice
Report: COVID-19 in U.S. State and Federal Prisons
Novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreaks have occurred at hundreds of jails and prisons across the United States, with new cases increasing rapidly in July and August 2020. Incarceration facilities represented 19 of the top 20 clusters of confirmed cases in the U.S. as of August 19. Using data from a variety of sources, this report contributes to our understanding of COVID-19 outbreaks within state and federal prisons by addressing two main questions: 1) How do overall COVID-19 case and mortality rates within state and federal prisons compare with rates for the general population, both before and after adjusting for the age, race/ethnicity, and sex of people in prison? 2) How do COVID-19 infections vary by the type and location of a prison?
COVID-19 Transmission in Corrections
The Times News: Alamance Jail outbreak keeps courts closed
The COVID-19 outbreak in the Alamance County Detention Center in North Carolina will keep court facilities closed for the rest of the week as the County Health Department and Sheriff’s Office confront the state’s largest outbreak in a prison or jail. The large majority of cases, 94, are among inmates including two who have been transferred to another facility. Nine staff members, including three who don’t live in Alamance County, also tested positive. An employee of an agency with offices in the courthouse also tested positive for COVID-19, according to a news release from the courthouse.
Juneau Star-Times: More than 40 people diagnosed with COVID-19 in New Lisbon prison outbreak
The Juneau County Health Department announced the largest outbreak in the county thus far, as more than 40 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution. An outbreak is defined by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services as two or more laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the same facility or associated with a single event, with onset within two maximum COVID-19 incubation periods of each other (28 days). Although numbers of inmates testing positive were not included in a press release from the Juneau County Health Department during the night of Aug. 31, the Department of Corrections’ statistics show 41 active cases for inmates at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution.
KUTV 2: 46 inmates test positive for COVID-19 at Cache County Jail
Forty-six inmates at the Cache County Jail (Utah) tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to a statement from the sheriff's office released Wednesday. To help stop the spread, the Logan City Police Department, the Cache County Sheriff's Office and other partner agencies have worked to issue citations and summons rather than booking some people in jail. This isn't the first outbreak at a Utah jail. In July, at least 182 people, incarcerated or employed, at two Utah jails were infected with COVID-19.
Montana Public Radio: "It’s Like Sardines:" Advocates Call For Health Protections For Inmates
Advocates for Montana inmates say their fears of COVID-19 outbreaks within correctional facilities are coming true. They’re demanding state officials take bigger steps to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading further. In April, Gov. Steve Bullock asked the Board of Pardons and Parole to consider releasing vulnerable inmates who don’t pose a safety risk early to reduce the chance of COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities, but advocates said it wasn’t enough. LetThemComeHome organizer and ACLU of Montana policy associate Zuri Moreno says Montana has hit a breaking point. State officials halted the transfer of inmates from three county jails last week after more than 90 inmates and staff tested positive for COVID-19.
COVID-19 Using Solitary Confinement as Quarantine
Jewish Currents: When Torture Is a Health Precaution
Departments of Corrections use a practice that has been internationally recognized as torture as a stand-in for a safe and humane means of quarantine. Health experts warn that the use of punitive medical isolation can deter prisoners from reporting symptoms, and that solitary confinement has been shown to weaken the immune system, making its use an obstacle to protecting health. A report from the anti-solitary-confinement coalition Unlock the Box recommends that prisons use widespread rapid testing and group prisoners based on testing status to avoid the use of isolation as much as possible, and that institutions provide sufficient entertainment, communication, and exercise opportunities whenever isolation is absolutely necessary.
COVID-19 Health Based Release
The Advocate: Advocates want COVID-19 health monitor for Louisiana prisons
Advocates for Louisiana prisoners called Wednesday for the state to select an independent health monitor to track the safety of inmates in the coronavirus outbreak, urging Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration to do more furloughs because of the health risks. A furlough program the Department of Corrections used earlier this year released only a few dozen people, drawing criticism that it did too little to lessen the spread of COVID-19 or help those most at risk of serious harm from the coronavirus illness.
COVID-19 Impacting Reentry
Prison Policy Initiative: Returning from prison and jail is hard during normal times — it’s even more difficult during COVID-19
The very same obstacles that make it hard for people released from prison to succeed — homelessness, a lack of transportation, barriers to healthcare, and more — also make it harder to stay safe from the coronavirus. At this moment, where it is well established that depopulating prisons and jails is critical for health and safety on both sides of the walls, it is critical that policymakers focus on the overlooked hardships faced by formerly incarcerated people. Poor people returning from prison typically do not have health insurance, since Medicaid’s “inmate exclusion policy” means that states terminate or suspend coverage when someone goes to prison, and not all states re-enroll people upon release.
The Marshall Project: The Former Prisoners Fighting California’s Wildfires
California firefighters have been battling unprecedented blazes and staffing shortages this wildfire season. Before the pandemic, thousands of the state’s wildfire crews came from state prisons—incarcerated people can make around $1 an hour containing fires, clearing brush, and doing other dangerous labor. But since COVID, many incarcerated firefighters have been released early. That shortage has called attention to the state’s reliance on prison labor to fight fires, and to a longstanding critique of the program: how hard it is for those same people to become professional firefighters once they’re free. Jobs in city fire departments often require a stringent background check. Getting hired in wildland firefighting, while not off-limits, is a challenge for people navigating re-entry on top of probation or parole.
COVID-19 Impacting Jail Expansion
The Daily Sentinel: COVID forces changes to jail, making expansion unneeded
The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado has suspended, at least for now, any plans to expand its jail, and the reasons why could turn out to be a good thing. The county’s top law enforcement officers, Sheriff Matt Lewis and District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, said in order to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at the Mesa County Detention Center, the number of people being held in the jail has purposely been kept to a minimum. In addition, outbreaks in other prisons in Colorado, particularly those run by the Department of Corrections, halted the system to transport convicted jail inmates to state facilities or other county jails meaning the Mesa County Jail can’t free up bed space from inmates sentenced to other prisons.
COVID-19 Florida Prison Crisis
CBS Miami: COVID-19 Inmate Death Toll Tops 100 In Florida
Florida’s prison system reached a grim milestone this week, as state corrections officials reported that more than 100 inmates have died of complications related to COVID-19. As of Friday, 107 inmates and at least three corrections workers had died of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, according to a Florida Department of Corrections report. The prisoner death toll has more than doubled since Aug. 3, when corrections officials reported 53 COVID-19 inmate deaths.
COVID-19 California Prison Crisis
San Francisco Chronicle: State halts operations at San Quentin dental clinic, citing COVID-19 hazard
California’s workplace safety regulator has ordered the San Quentin Prison dental clinic to stop drilling and other work because unsafe practices are spreading COVID-19. The California Division of Occupational Health and Safety said workers were being put at risk of infection and banned dental work that sprays droplets from the patient’s mouth until the prison can meet a list of safety conditions.
Women's Healthcare in Corrections
The Orange County Register: Pregnant inmates get inconsistent medical care at Orange County Women’s Jail, grand jury says
Pregnant inmates at Orange County Women’s Jail received inconsistent medical and custodial care, including one woman who was shackled to her hospital bed while suffering a miscarriage, according to a 2019-20 grand jury report. The report, presented this month to the county Board of Supervisors, reviewed 10 fetal deaths in Orange County custody and the treatment of pregnant inmates. Spotlighted in the report was the case of a mentally ill woman who miscarried at 28 weeks. Although she was drugged and unable to walk away, a deputy refused a doctor’s order to take the shackles off her.
KUOW: Not a death sentence: Female inmate serving 35-year sentence fights for life-saving health care
For the last four years, inmate Cynthia Miller’s health condition has only gotten worse. Transvaginal mesh was implanted inside the 60-year-old woman in 2005, to help with incontinence issues caused by her bladder, before she was incarcerated. In the 10 years since the surgery, complications from the procedure have compounded with her Lupus and high blood pressure, her husband Dean Rhodes said. Miller is one of many female inmates in Washington state who report that their medical needs go unmet. In an incarcerated women survey published by the Office of the Corrections Ombuds in February, about half of the 772 female inmates said their healthcare needs were not met.
The Spokesman-Review: Woman sues, says she was hospitalized after prison dentistry
A woman who says she suffered a life-threatening infection after Idaho’s prison staffers denied her antibiotics following dental surgery is suing state officials and Corizon Health, claiming she was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Christina Bergstrom says she was hospitalized for two weeks – part of that time in intensive care – after she developed a rare, rapidly spreading and potentially fatal infection after her wisdom teeth were removed. She’s asking a federal judge to order Corizon to pay her an unspecified amount of damages.
Mental Health and Incarceration
The CT Mirror: Systemic understaffing, mental illness stigma played role in prison birth, lawsuit alleges
Tianna Laboy spent nearly 30 days at an inpatient mental health treatment program before she was admitted to York Correctional Institution in August 2017. When she arrived at the Niantic prison, officials put her in the mental health infirmary. New filings in her civil lawsuit allege that her placement there “guaranteed she would be seen in a negative, stigmatized manner,” leading medical personnel to not take her complaints seriously. That stigma, her lawyers argue, coupled with chronic understaffing of mental health and medical personnel, a gynecologist who was not on call on a critical night, and other factors led to Laboy delivering her child in her cell.
Mother Jones: New York Promised to Help Mentally Ill People as They Left Prison. Here’s What Happened Instead.
Since the 1950s, states across the country have closed many psychiatric institutions or asylums, which were criticized as being inhumane, but have neglected to fund enough community-based services for people with mental illness. More of them have instead landed in jails and prisons. In 2014, New York’s corrections department issued a guidance that prohibited sending prisoners with such serious mental health needs to homeless shelters, reasoning it wasn’t safe. From 2016 to mid-2019, at least 82 people in their situation were held in prisons past the maximum term of their court-imposed prison sentences because they were waiting for housing. In January 2019, the Legal Aid Society and Disability Rights New York, which provides free legal services to people with disabilities, sued over this practice of incarcerating people past their release dates.
Montgomery Advertiser: Federal court orders monitors for mental health care in Alabama prisons
A federal judge Wednesday ordered external monitors to keep track of the Alabama Department of Corrections’ compliance with mental health care orders and train department officials to perform it on their own in the future. DOC and a group of plaintiffs who sued the department over inadequate mental health care had agreed to the monitoring, but could not reach a consensus on its implementation. In his order, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote that DOC had been “unable or unwilling to take necessary steps to monitor its own practices.” Inmates in Alabama prisons sued over inadequate mental health care in 2014. Jamie Wallace, an inmate who testified during the trial in December 2016, died by suicide about two weeks after his testimony.
San Jose Spotlight: Santa Clara County struggles to breathe life into mental health services for ex-inmates
Santa Clara County supervisors are vowing to save a critically underfunded mental health program that often is a last resort for hundreds of former inmates in need of medical help. Community Awaiting Placement Supervision (CAPS) helps place former Santa Clara County inmates into mental health treatment programs. They are ordered, upon release, to receive outpatient counseling or be placed in transitional housing. From July 2019 to this July, 109 people were released from jail into the supervision of CAPS. Of those, only 16 made it through the full 90 days of the program in compliance and without being rearrested, according to Javier Aguirre, director of Reentry Services for the county. The majority are not successful because of a bench warrant, non-compliant, a court date, missed connecting with a probation officer or did not enroll or connect with treatment.
Violence, Cellphones and Deliberate Indifference in Corrections
New York Times: A Weapon for Extortion Long Ignored in Alabama Prisons: Cellphones
A prisoner in Alabama used a cellphone, which are banned, to beg relatives incessantly for money. Often heard in the background were other voices, instructing the prisoner on what to say. The relatives finally stopped responding. The prisoner was found strangled in his cell. This case reflects how the longtime indifference of the Alabama Department of Corrections — including its failure for many years to crack down on cellphones, which seem almost as easy to obtain behind bars as at a Best Buy — had terrifying consequences for those within and beyond the prison walls. In a bluntly critical report last year, the Justice Department accused the state of “deliberate indifference” by failing to address problems that jeopardize inmate safety, including overcrowding, understaffing, the smuggling of contraband and extortion.
WKU: Massive Coronavirus Outbreak At CoreCivic Prison In Middle Tennessee Raises Questions
CoreCivic accounts for about 77% of coronavirus cases and half of the deaths in the state prison system, though it houses just over one-third of inmates. Last week, WPLN News uncovered an outbreak at another CoreCivic facility in Nashville that wasn’t reported to the public, because the prison isn’t technically part of the Department of Correction or the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, which both regularly share COVID-19 data with the media.
AZ Central: COVID-19 cases spike again at immigrant detention center in Eloy
The La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy reported 233 new cases of COVID-19, according to data posted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on its website. That is the highest number of active COVID-19 cases at any federal immigration detention facility in the country. Immigrant advocates decried the latest outbreak and said it shows that the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is not contained. The La Palma Correctional Center is run by CoreCivic, a private for-profit company that contracts with ICE to hold immigrants who are awaiting deportation to their home countries or fighting their removal in immigration court, among them asylum seekers.