COCHS Weekly Update: June 16, 2020


COCHS: Vikki Wachino's letter to colleagues concerning Reentry provisions of covid response legislation and accompanying fact sheets
For our colleagues who may have missed our CEO's letter and fact sheets, released yesterday, these documents are available on COCHS' website.

Community Catalyst: Federal Policy Response for People with Substance Use Disorders and Justice-Involved Populations
In a recommendation published on June 4, Community Catalyst addressed the disproportionate percent of people incarcerated who have mental illness and substance use disorders. Specifically Community Catalyst urged Congress to permit use of federal matching funds for this purpose, and/or to allow and direct the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to approve state waiver requests to use Medicaid funds in this way. Furthermore, Community Catalyst supports COCHS' proposal for establishment of federal and state Correctional Health Coordinators that could centralize data collection and allocation of resources during public health emergencies.

COVID-19 Community Health Responds

Fierce Healthcare: Industry Voices—Incarcerated people need health coverage to help stop drug overdose—and stem COVID-19 spread
In an op-ed, Elizabeth Salisbury-Afshar, M.D., a member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and Kelly King, an associate member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine write: releasing individuals who are incarcerated without connections to healthcare providers, medical coverage, safe and stable housing, or a support system can greatly increase their risk of relapse, overdose, and death—it has been estimated that individuals returning to the community after incarceration are 129 times more likely to die from an overdose than the general population. One critical part of the solution gaining traction among leaders of both parties in Congress—and that should be part of the next COVID-19 legislative package—is the Medicaid Reentry Act (H.R. 1329), which would allow states to restart Medicaid coverage for eligible individuals who are incarcerated for the 30 days prior to their release.

WKOW: Madison officials ask jail inmates with COVID-19 be moved to health care system
Several city of Madison elected officials wrote a public letter to Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney asking him to transfer jail inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 to the local healthcare system. The letter acknowledged racial inequities leading to ""disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people."" This same group, according to the letter and health officials, has experienced higher rates of COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths.

COVID-19 Lawsuits

KQED: As COVID-19 Surges Through Prisons, Guards and Inmates Sue
CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies is being sued by one of its correctional officers. As late as the end of March, when California was under shelter-in-place orders to limit the spread of the coronavirus, meals at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego were still served in the “chow hall” with hundreds of people from different housing units congregating together. The number of infections at the detention center climbed to more than 250 .

Huron Daily Tribune: Judge - Prisons must create testing plan for all inmates
North Carolina state prison inmates are likely facing unlawful “cruel or unusual punishments” in part because correction officials have failed to offer widespread COVID-19 testing within all correctional facilities, a judge said. Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier, hearing a lawsuit filed by prisoners and civil rights advocates, wrote this week he would issue an order telling the plaintiffs and the state prison system to come up with a plan by June 22 to test all prisoners. He did not provide a deadline to complete testing. In a memo, Rozier said he's worried about disparate COVID-19 actions taking place at each prison and also wants a plan to address those differences. Lawsuits by plaintiffs behind bars stated that their lives were gravely at risk because they had no idea whether other inmates they live with have the coronavirus.

COVID-19 Voices of Incarcerated People and Their Families

Stat: ‘Obsessed with staying alive’ Inmates describe a prison’s piecemeal response to a fatal Covid-19 outbreak
The outbreak at California's Institution of Men (described by several current inmates) illustrates how a slow and piecemeal response to the novel coronavirus put the prison’s standard operating procedures ahead of the demands of a public health emergency. That approach, combined with existing overcrowding, has fueled the spread of the virus. “I have become obsessed with staying alive,” inmate Darrell Harris, 65, wrote in a letter. 56-year-old Anthony Barker, who is serving a life sentence, wrote to California Correctional Health Care Services, which oversees medical care in prisons, to raise concerns about the lack of face masks among guards — and how it could put himself and other inmates at risk.

Santa Barbara Independent: 22 Days in Lompoc Prison’s COVID-19 ‘Hellhole’
Dr. Omid Souresrafil is a biomedical engineer who specializes in the design of implantable devices. Originally from Minnesota and married with a teenage son, he is currently serving time for wire fraud at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex. Souresrafil now finds himself locked inside the country’s worst prison COVID-19 outbreak. More than 1,000 Lompoc inmates and guards have tested positive for the disease, and four inmates have died. On May 1, according to his declaration, 50-year-old Souresrafil checked himself into the prison’s small medical bay complaining of heart palpitations and shortness of breath. He tested negative for COVID-19, but the nurse ordered him under strict quarantine in H-Unit, where he spent 22 days in pain and panic in an 8’x8′ cell. “During every one of the 22 days, I could hear the 100+ inmates coughing and calling the guards for help,” he wrote. “Several collapsed and needed resuscitation before being taken by ambulance to Lompoc Medical Center. … I thought I was going to die, and there were times I felt I wanted to.”

CPR News: Families Hold Vigil For Inmates Inside Colorado’s Largest Prison, Home To The State’s Biggest Coronavirus Outbreak
Families of a handful of inmates lined up facing the razor-wire fencing of Sterling Correctional Facility in Northeast Colorado. Raeleen Woodbury, who arranged the vigil, said those flashing windows made her drive from Tennessee more than worth it. Her son is one of the about 2,200 inmates inside the Sterling Correctional Facility, which is both Colorado’s largest prison and the state’s largest known coronavirus outbreak. Woodbury planned the vigil after public health officials announced a third inmate had died from complications due to COVID-19.

COVID-19 Reassessing Corrections

Harvard Political Review: Prisons Are a Pandemic
The rise of COVID-19 inside jails and prisons is terrifying for Country and many other incarcerated individuals. Incarcerated people, already contending with the dehumanizing conditions in prisons and jails, must now also contend with the very rapid spread of a disease from which they cannot defend themselves. Many have framed the spread of the coronavirus in prisons and jails as one of the many failures of a broken prison system. Yes, prisons fail incarcerated people and their families, and they have broken our sense of humanity by normalizing carceral violence. But as prisons and jails become hotbeds for the coronavirus, it is apparent that what we generally understand as their failures are embedded in their design.

COVID-19 Racial Disparities

Stat: To understand who’s dying of Covid-19, look to social factors like race more than preexisting diseases
While early studies of who was dying of Covid-19 identified risks such as obesity and having diabetes, there is a growing realization that those initial conclusions might have been misleading, obscuring a more significant explanation. As researchers pull back their lens from individuals to population-level risk factors, they’re finding that, in the U.S., race may be as important as age in gauging a person’s likelihood of dying from the disease.The higher the percentage of Black residents in a county, the higher its death rate from Covid-19.

COVID-19 Release of Incarcerated People

San Jose Spotlight: We can prove black and brown lives matter by emptying our jails
In an op-ed, Marce Abare, a physician specializing in addiction and primary care for patients recently released from prison and jail, writes: Before COVID-19, it was hard to imagine our criminal justice system could consider public health as reason to keep people out of jail. Having worked at Rikers Island in New York City and local jails, I have long been aware of the damage inflicted on the bodies and minds of incarcerated people. In Santa Clara County, nearly 1,000 individuals returned to their homes or the streets within weeks, a 30% decrease in jail census. This decision saved lives. Jails are profoundly unsafe settings—considering the filth and overcrowding, it’s no wonder eight of the 10 largest COVID outbreaks in the United States have been in correctional facilities.

KGW8: Gov. Brown plans early release of inmates to limit COVID-19 risk
In a letter sent Friday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown requested the Department of Corrections identify inmates who should be considered for early release due to the COVID-19 safety risks associated with the state’s prison system. The request marks a turning point for the governor who has previously refused to release inmates in response to the pandemic and comes as Oregon faces a spike of coronavirus cases. In the letter to the director of the DOC, Brown recognized the overwhelming challenge of enforcing social distancing in a prison setting.

Star Advertiser: Hawaii’s early inmate release a health success
In an op-ed, Justin F. Kollara Kauai County prosecuting attorney, writes: Hawaii’s justice system was recently forced to confront an unprecedented crisis: the threat of a pandemic in its jails and prisons that could potentially create widespread outbreaks in our communities. The Hawaii Supreme Court responded to that crisis at the urging of the Office of the Public Defender. Hawaii’s prosecutors, public defenders, public safety workers and judges did their jobs and made hard decisions. As a result, Hawaii has thus far avoided some of the disasters faced on the continent. That should be applauded.

COVID-19 Transmission in Corrections

The New Yorker: Punishment by Pandemic
When Governor Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas, began holding daily coronavirus press conferences, he set apart the cases at Cummins penitentiary. On April 19th, he presented a graph illustrating new infections in the past five weeks: cases were dipping, he reassured the public, if incarcerated people were removed from the equation. “The number that we will have coming out of Cummins dwarfs what we’re having statewide,” Hutchinson explained. “That’s a reason, of course, to distinguish those in the reporting system.” Cummins has had the tenth-largest coronavirus outbreak in the nation—nine hundred and fifty-six people, including sixty-five staff members, have tested positive—but the Division of Correction has made only minimal steps to contain it.

PBS New Hour: ‘When this virus gets behind bars, it runs like wildfire,’ experts warn
Fifty-one inmates at Sing Sing have tested positive for the virus and four have died, according to the most recent numbers provided by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions. But experts and prison watchers think that infections in most prisons around the country are likely underreported, and that the virus’ deadly spread has helped shed light on the pre-existing flaws within the prison system. Prisons are incubators for the virus. Social distancing, frequent hand-washing and use of masks are preventative measures that are accessible to much of American society, but they’re rare luxuries for the incarcerated.

San Francisco Chronicle: 200 Chino inmates transferred to San Quentin, Corcoran. Why weren’t they tested first?
Prisoners at the California Institution for Men in Chino — home of the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in the state’s prisons — were not tested for the virus for weeks before nearly 200 were transferred by bus to other facilities, including one in the Bay Area. Between May 28 and 29, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials transferred 66 medically vulnerable men from the Chino facility to the California State Prison, Corcoran, in an effort to spare the patients from the outbreak at Chino. 15 of the men transferred to San Quentin had tested positive, as well as one person transferred to Corcoran.

Albuquerque Journal: NM virus cases rise as more inmates test positive
Confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to spread in New Mexico prisons as state health officials announced new positive test results on Friday in four different detention facilities. The Department of Health also announced six additional deaths related to the coronavirus, bringing the state’s death toll from the virus to 426. In all, New Mexico health officials reported 162 new confirmed cases, more than half of which are from San Juan and McKinley counties. Inmates and detainees at four facilities around New Mexico accounted for 21 of the state’s new COVID-19 cases.

WPTV West Palm Beach: 175 inmates test positive for coronavirus at South Bay Correctional Facility, including 1 death
An inmate has died at the South Bay Correctional Facility from the coronavirus, as cases continue to skyrocket at the facility in the Glades. The death was confirmed by the GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based company that operates the private state prison. The correctional facility, which has nearly 1,950 prisoners, now has 175 inmates that have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. In addition to these cases, the DOC says 59 staff members have tested positive, which is the highest number for any facility in Florida.

COVID-19 Testing in Corrections

AZCentral: Maricopa County considers mass testing in jails after confirmed COVID-19 cases spike
Days after advocates demanded mass testing for inmates in Maricopa County jails, the number of positive cases of COVID-19 jumped from 30 to 203. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sent a letter last week to Sheriff Paul Penzone demanding mass testing. Jails have become hot spots for clusters of positive cases across the country. However, county officials told The Arizona Republic on Friday that mass testing was not needed. Now, county officials are rethinking that decision, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Las Vegas Review Journal: Nevada prison testing up to about 54 percent
The Nevada Department of Corrections has gone from testing less than half of 1 percent of prisoners for the coronavirus to testing more than half of people in the department’s custody as of this week. The rapid increase in testing started after the department announced May 20 it would begin working with the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct widespread testing in the prison facilities. Department spokesman Scott Kelley said that as of Friday, 6,733 prisoners had been tested for the virus, along with 825 employees.

Mental Health

The Washington Post: Mental illness is a health issue, not a police issue
In an op-ed, Pete Earley writes: Americans with mental illnesses make up nearly a quarter of those killed by police officers, according to The Post’s Fatal Force database. Meanwhile, a cumulative list shows 115 police officers have been killed since the 1970s by individuals with untreated serious mental illnesses.It doesn’t have to be this way. The movement underway to “defund the police,” is a long-needed moment to shift responsibility for the seriously mentally ill away from police and put it back to where it belongs: on social service agencies and the medical community.