COCHS Weekly Update: August 11, 2020

Partner Announcements and Publications

Community Catalyst and National Medical Association: Congress Must Respond to Deep Health Inequities for Black People During COVID-19: Medicaid is the Lever
Community Catalyst has prepared a policy paper on actions the United States Congress can take to acknowledge the structural inequities of our health care system by investing in what people need during a health crisis that threatens their security. These include: invest in the Medicaid program, invest in Medicaid providers, incentivize states to expand Medicaid, support Medicaid connections in reentry, and extend Medicaid postpartum to reduce mortality.

Commonwealth Fund: Bringing Health Care to People Leaving the Criminal Justice System Through In-Reach Programs
The coronavirus pandemic has complicated how people in the criminal justice system receive health care. Most of the biggest outbreaks of COVID-19 are in correctional facilities. In May, the House of Representatives introduced a bill to allow Medicaid to cover services provided to incarcerated people 30 days before their release from prison or jail, but the Senate has yet to act. Several states have sought permission to have Medicaid cover COVID-19 testing and treatment for individuals incarcerated in jails and prisons with matching federal funds; however, none of these request have been approved to date.

Urban Institute: States Could Save Lives by Expanding Compassionate Release during COVID-19 and Beyond
One immediate way to protect people in prison and prevent the spread of the coronavirus is to substantially reduce (PDF) the prison population. Media’s attention has been on the federal government’s failed response in federal prisons, but scant attention has been paid to state prisons. Some prisons have started doing so, trailing behind efforts by jails, but it is not enough. Further, these releases have increased racial disparities; states such as Illinois are releasing Black people from prison at lower rates than their white counterparts.

COVID-19 Legislative Initiatives

Elizabeth Warren's Office: Warren, Pressley, Murray, Booker, Garcia, Clarke, Kelly Introduce the COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act
Bicameral bill would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshals Service, and state governments to collect and publicly report detailed data about COVID-19 in correctional facilities; A troubling lack of data from BOP, USMS, and state and local governments is making it harder to manage the crisis and contributing to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities across the country.

Vera Institute of Justice: U.S House of Representatives Votes to Lift the Ban on Pell Grants for People in Prison
The House of Representatives has voted to lift the longstanding ban on Pell Grants for people in state and federal prisons. The provision to lift the ban was included in the appropriations minibus that cleared the House earlier today. The vote represents a historic milestone in the effort to ensure that people in prison can access postsecondary education through Pell Grants. People in prison have been barred from obtaining federal Pell Grants (which are intended to help the most economically disadvantaged people) to further their education since Congress passed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act in 1994.

Crosscut: Deaths in WA prisons draw scrutiny from state Legislature
A series of deaths at one Washington prison has prompted lawmakers to reconsider how the Legislature monitors state prisons, despite Department of Corrections suggestions that more oversight is unnecessary. While the Department of Corrections contends it investigates every inmate death, those inquiries aren't regularly shared outside the department. State Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said she and other legislators receive little insight into why inmates die or what changes prison system administrators make to correct errors.

COVID-19 Florida Prison Crisis

Tampa Bay Times: Medical oversight prison agency stops visits amid coronavirus
Over the past five months the group that oversees standard medical care in Florida’s prison system has stopped all in-person visits because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Correctional Medical Authority canceled visits to five state prisons and has no immediate plans to return as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, said the agency’s director Jane Holmes-Cain. “It’s not safe for us,” she said. “It’s not safe for the inmates for us to go in there.” Meanwhile, Florida’s prisons have become hot beds of coronavirus spread. Nearly 10,000 state inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, and 60 have died. Another 2,000 prison staffers have contracted the virus and at least two have died.

News 4 Jax: Spread of COVID-19 inside prison behind spike of Baker County cases
Baker County set a record with 102 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. What’s behind this big surge in a small county is an outbreak within Baker Correctional Institution in Sanderson. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, there were 266 cases among inmates at Baker Correctional as of Friday -- 42% the 630 total number of cases the state Health Department data shows for the county. Another 21 staff members of the institution have tested positive, according to the DOC website.

The Daily Beast: Florida Prison Officer and Wife Die of COVID-19 Within an Hour
A Florida corrections officer and his wife of 30 years died of COVID-19 within an hour of each other, it was reported Monday. Sgt. Wayne Rogers, 65, was the first state prison staffer to die of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 8,000 inmates and killed 53 of them, the Tampa Bay Times reported. The head of the state corrections department and his deputy have also tested positive, although it’s not clear if they contracted it during a prison visit or while attending a sheriffs conference last week.

COVID-19 Vermont Prison Crisis

VT Digger: Number of Vermont inmates with Covid-19 in Mississippi prison surges to 147
Corrections officials said Wednesday significantly more Vermont inmates held in a privately run Mississippi prison have tested positive for the coronavirus.Three days after reporting 85 Vermont inmates had tested positive, officials now say the number has jumped to 147 after additional testing, or about two-thirds of the total 219 prisoners from the state held at the Mississippi prison. That outbreak appears to be fraying the relationship between the state of Vermont and CoreCivic, the operator of the Mississippi prison, at a time when a two-year contract between the parties is nearing renewal.

VT Digger: ‘We should have pressed harder,’ governor says of testing after prison outbreak
When Vermont signed a contract nearly two years ago to house its out-of-state prisoners in a privately run Mississippi facility, corrections officials trumpeted a key provision that called for those inmates to be treated based on the policies that guide in-state prisons. But, when the state had an opportunity to put that provision into action to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in that prison, it did not demand that CoreCivic, the operator of the Mississippi facility, implement the same testing protocols in place at Vermont correctional centers.

VT Digger: Hiring practices, lawsuit, prompt questions over new prison health care provider
The new health care provider hired by the state to take care of prisoners is facing a lawsuit over an inmate’s death in its care in a New Mexico prison. Kansas-based VitalCore Health Strategies was hired after the state's previous health care provider was accused of inadequate care of a prisoner who died. Vermont is investigating that case. VitalCore is hiring many of the same health care workers employed by the previous provider. It is often the case that there is a very limited number of people willing to do that work in correctional facilities.

COVID-19 California Prison Crisis

The New York Times: Split 5 to 4, Supreme Court Rules for California Jail Over Virus Measures
By a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with officials at a California jail in a dispute over the adequacy of its response to the coronavirus pandemic. The court’s brief order was unsigned and gave no reasons, which is typical when it acts on emergency applications. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor said the officials had misled Judge Bernal. “The jail claimed that it had already achieved proper social distancing, provided inmates enough soap for frequent hand washing, and isolated and tested all symptomatic individuals,” she wrote, adding that sworn statements from dozens of detainees told a different story.

San Francisco Chronicle: California prison workers file grievance alleging unsafe conditions to prevent coronavirus outbreaks
A union representing thousands of California prison employees has filed a wide-ranging grievance against the state corrections department and its health care system, charging that officials are exposing staffers to “uncontrolled” coronavirus outbreaks inside state-run prisons. SEIU Local 1000, which represents health care workers, clerical staff, custodians and other prison employees, said corrections officials have propelled a system-wide outbreak by recklessly moving prisoners and failing to follow health and safety guidelines.

The Sentinel: Group protests pandemic response at Corcoran prisons
A group that aims to be the voices for their loved ones who are incarcerated held a protest Thursday at California State Prison-Corcoran and California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran. Members of “We Are Their Voices” protested the treatment of their loved ones at the prisons, the CDCR's response to the pandemic, COVID-19 related deaths of incarcerated individuals, as well as the shut-down of visitation during the pandemic.

COVID-19 Transmission in Corrections

KCOY: Jails can spread coronavirus to nearby communities, study finds
In Illinois, data suggests more than 4,700 coronavirus cases through April 19 were associated with 2,129 individuals going through the Cook County Jail in March, researchers from Harvard University’s Department of Anthropology and the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris said. The jail may be linked with 15.7% of all documented cases in the state and 15.9% in Chicago, they said.

Lexington Herald Leader: Coronavirus outbreak at Fayette County jail balloons to 44 inmates, 2 employees
Since the Fayette County Detention Center identified its first case of COVID-19 among inmates on Monday, 44 inmates have tested positive for the virus. So far, 93 inmates have been tested, the jail said in a news release Friday afternoon. Of those, 44 tests came back positive for coronavirus, while the test results for 32 inmates were pending. Seventeen inmates tested negative.

7 News: State prison turns away Logan County inmates infected with COVID-19
The Logan County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois attempted to transfer seven inmates to the state-run Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro on Wednesday night, but when the transport vehicle arrived at the state prison, two of the seven inmates tested positive for Covid-19. The Department of Corrections would not accept the inmates who tested positive, which sparked a short standoff between the state and local agencies. The Logan County transport vehicle insisted the inmates be transferred, and refused to leave the parking lot for a period of about two hours after their tests came back positive, two sources said.

San Francisco Chronicle: Over 500 Arizona inmates test positive amid slowing virus
Arizona corrections officials have said that 517 inmates at the state prison in Tucson have tested positive for the coronavirus even as the overall spread in the state seems to be turning a corner. And state health officials on Wednesday reported 1,698 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and 87 additional deaths. The state has documented 182,203 COVID-19 infections and 3,932 deaths overall, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

COVID-19 Voices of Incarcerated People and Their Families

The Appeal: Prisons Are the Public Health Crisis Connecticut Won’t Acknowledge
According to people incarcerated and their loved ones, state officials are ignoring the spread of COVID-19 at New Haven Correctional Center. In June, the state of Connecticut agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union to win release for thousands of incarcerated people as COVID-19 spreads through prisons and jails. But the deeply inadequate settlement stipulates that only basic protections like soap, showers, masks, and quarantine measures be enacted, while diverting responsibility for release back to the Department of Correction and state courts that largely remain closed.

COVID-19 Testing

San Franciso Chronicle: Judge orders Bakersfield immigration holding facility to test all detainees weekly
A federal judge ordered immigration officials Thursday to test all detainees for the coronavirus at a Bakersfield facility where COVID-19 has broken out and to report the test results quickly, saying the government’s inaction is endangering inmates, staff and the public. The evidence suggests that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shown “deliberate indifference to the risk of an outbreak” at the Mesa Verde Detention Center and has “lost the right to be trusted” that it will take safety measures without a court order, said U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria of San Francisco.

COVID-19 Release

The Washington Post: Frail inmates could be sent home to prevent the spread of covid-19. Instead, some are dying in federal prisons.
To fight the virus’s spread, Attorney General William P. Barr in late March directed federal prisons to send vulnerable, low-risk inmates to home confinement or release them outright. According to the Bureau of Prisons website, about 7,000 inmates, or about 4 percent of its 160,000-inmate population, have been sent home since. But the bureau has largely disregarded one method it has to release inmates, a procedure that seems ideally suited for the coronavirus pandemic — compassionate release.

Racial Disparities - Judicial Decisions

The Washington Post: He got life for stealing hedge clippers. The Louisiana Supreme Court says it’s a fair sentence.
More than two decades ago, police in Shreveport, La., stopped Fair Wayne Bryant on the side of the road for allegedly stealing a pair of hedge clippers. Last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request from Bryant to hear a review of his life sentence. Six of the seven justices backed the decision, which was first reported by The Lens NOLA, a nonprofit news site based in New Orleans. The lone Black judge on the bench was the only one to disagree. In a searing dissent, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said Bryant’s sentence was only due to Louisiana’s harsh habitual offender laws, a “modern manifestation” of the “Pig Laws” designed to keep Black people in poverty during Reconstruction.

Violence In Corrections

The New York Times: Violence at Rikers at an ‘All-Time High’ Despite City’s Promise to Curb It
Five years ago, the city entered a landmark legal settlement with federal prosecutors, promising to stamp out the culture of violence inside its jail complex on Rikers Island, a place where officers regularly used excessive force on inmates. But a federal monitor appointed to oversee the troubled jail system has found that little progress has been made curbing the brutality of guards and that violent incidents have risen sharply since 2016, remaining at an “all-time high.”