COCHS Weekly Update: August 25, 2020

COVID-19 and Criminal Justice Reform

PEW: Small but Growing Group Incarcerated For a Month or More Has Kept Jail Populations High
The COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on the more than 700,000 people in jails across the United States because of the potential for spread of the virus to those working and confined there. Concentrated efforts to reduce admissions and increase releases from jails in recent weeks have resulted in significant population drops in many of these local facilities. This change represents a sharp contrast to pre-pandemic trends. A recent Pew analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data showed virtually no change in jail populations from 2010 to 2017, although crimes, arrests, and jail admissions declined.

The Detroit News: Michigan criminal justice reform effort gains wider bipartisan support
Michigan officials appear to be gaining momentum on making serious jail reform with the introduction of bipartisan legislation that is being given legislative priority after recent protests and continued calls for changes to policing and the court system. Republican and Democratic lawmakers want to decrease the number and type of offenses that could land a person behind bars. The aim is to cut down on needless jail stays that ensnare individuals who would otherwise have relatively clean records.

WHYY NPR: ACLU calls for Delaware probation reform
A report released this week by the ACLU of Delaware calls the state’s system of probation and parole costly and ineffective at preventing people recently released from prison from returning. ACLU DE Executive Director Mike Brickner said one out of every three people released from prison is rearrested for a technical probation violation. Oftentimes, that is not for committing a new crime, but for having some sort of status violation where you missed a meeting with your probation officer, or you didn’t do one of the list of tasks that you’re supposed to do.

COVID-19 Testing in Corrections

CDC: Mass Testing for SARS-CoV-2 in 16 Prisons and Jails — Six Jurisdictions, United States, April–May 2020
Correctional facilities that resisted mass coronavirus testing for inmates erred in their decision to only test inmates with symptoms, leading to large initial undercounts, a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggested. The study released this week examined 13 prisons and jails in California, Colorado, Ohio and Texas, and three federal prisons in states that weren’t identified. Most of the institutions waited several days or weeks before the first identified case of COVID-19 and the beginning of mass inmate testing, the study found.

Detroit Free Press: Michigan prison staff are now required to get tested for COVID-19
Michigan Department of Corrections staff who work in prisons will be required to get tested for COVID-19 under an emergency order issued Wednesday. While the department has tested all prisoners through mass testing efforts, staff testing was voluntary prior to the order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The order applies to anyone who works inside the boundaries of a state prison or comes in contact with prisoners on the job.

COVID-19 Racial Disparities

The Morning Call: Review of COVID-19’s effect on communities of color largely ignores Pa. inmates
Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania tapped Lt. Gov. John Fetterman to lead a state task force after reports across the nation showed Black and brown communities were disproportionately affected by the virus, both in hospital settings as well as economically. In Pennsylvania, 21% of people who have died from COVID-19 were Black, while Black people make up just 12% of the state’s population. Advocates for incarcerated people, and community leaders hoped the task force would address ongoing issues that have been well-reported inside corrections facilities, such as the lack of masks or cleaning supplies, poor social distancing due to overcrowding, limited access to quality health care, and an absence of widespread testing.

Stat: As Covid-19 cases in prisons climb, data on race remain largely obscured
This week, the number of Covid-19 deaths among inmates and correctional officers passed 1,000, with more than 160,000 infected. But as Covid-19 cases among incarcerated people continue to climb, the racial makeup of those cases has remained obscured, despite the fact that the groups most affected by Covid-19 — people of color, and in particular, Black people — have also been disproportionately incarcerated. Only four states are proactively reporting any demographic data on their Covid-19 testing or case counts among incarcerated people.

COVID-19 Hawai'i Prison Crisis

Lawyers For Equal Justice: Outbreak
How prosecutors, politicians and the media undermined an initiative to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in Hawaiʻi jails, which is now upon us. The Hawai'ian Supreme Court designed a process that allowed individuals incarcerated for lower-level offenses to petition lower courts for release. The process provided an opportunity for prosecutors to object to release, and allowed releases only if the judge was satisfied release would not endanger the public. Despite this success, media coverage of the release initiative was overwhelmingly negative. Prosecutors and others issued dire warnings that the courts were releasing large numbers of violent criminals, and that crime was spiking. Politicians repeated these claims in even more dramatic terms. Media outlets printed the inflammatory statements without meaningful rebuttal or context. The outbreak that the Supreme Court tried so desperately to avert in April is now upon us, exacerbated (if not caused) by the discontinuation of the release program. County jails have rapidly refilled in the wake of the termination of the Supreme Court proceedings. Hundreds of inmates and correctional officers are infected.

Honolulu Civil Beat: At Oahu Jail, Healthy Inmates Are Being Housed With COVID-19 Cases
Mass testing at the Oahu Community Correctional Center has detected inmates or staff with COVID-19 in almost all of the jail’s 19 housing units, and the jail administration has been unable to properly separate all of the infected prisoners from those who are well, according to staff at OCCC. In one recent case, healthy inmates who were housed in an area with infected prisoners openly made threats against inmates who were known to be ill, which was apparently an attempt to force the jail administration to move the sick prisoners to some other part of the jail.

KITV Island News: Public defender pushes state for OCCC health inspection, more inmate release
Deputy public defender Susan Arnett says she and her colleagues have heard dozens of complaints from guards, inmates, and their loved ones. "The crisis at OCCC is worsening. That adds to the urgency of getting more people out," she says. "The line you're getting from inside is, 'Please don't let me die here.'" Arnett says the Public Defender's Office wants a third party to inspect the facility immediately, "to look at what's being done and suggest other ways they may be able to comply." The Public Defender asked the Supreme Court for this in its August 12 petition.

COVID-19 Mississippi Prison Crisis

AP: Mississippi prison virus protocols under scrutiny
Attorneys are feuding in federal court filings over coronavirus testing and safety protocols at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Madeleine LaMarre, a nurse and prison health care consultant who is helping plaintiffs in the Parchman lawsuit, said in court papers Aug. 11: “I found, among other serious problems with access to care, that the conditions of confinement were the worst I had ever witnessed, including lack of adequate sanitation and disinfection that would promote the transmission of COVID-19 to inmates and staff.” (Entertainment mogul Jay-Z and rapper Yo Gotti are funding a lawsuit filed early this year to challenge health and safety conditions in Parchman.) Centurion, a private company that provides medical services in Mississippi gave 90 days notice to the Department of Corrections that the company will end its state contract as of Oct. 5.

COVID-19 CoreCivic Vermont-Mississippi Prison Crisis

Jackson Free Press: 80% of Vermont Inmates at CoreCivic Private Prison in Mississippi Infected
An outbreak of the coronavirus at a private prison in Mississippi has now infected 80% of the Vermont inmates housed there, and more test results are pending, the head of the Vermont Corrections Department said Monday. Vermont houses 219 inmates in Mississippi, because of a lack of capacity in its own prisons. In late July, six inmates who were returned to Vermont from Mississippi prison tested positive when they arrived at the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland. That prompted Vermont’s Corrections Department on July 30 to order that the remaining Vermont inmates in Mississippi be tested.

COVID-19 and Fires California Prison Crisis

The Guardian: 'Severe inhumanity': California prisons overwhelmed by Covid outbreaks and approaching fires
California’s raging wildfires have created a crisis at multiple state prisons, where there are reports of heavy smoke and ash making it hard to breathe, unanswered pleas for evacuation, and concerns that the fire response could lead to further Covid-19 spread. A massive fire in the Vacaville area, north of San Francisco, has rapidly spread within miles of two state prisons this week, including one that imprisons terminally ill people in hospice care and the elderly and medically vulnerable.

The Mercury News: ‘No one deserves conditions like this’: Fires present health risks, prompt pleas to evacuate nearby state prisons
While fire crews managed to halt the progress of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire from reaching the middle of town, thick smoke and ash hung in the air Friday, prompting concerns among family members of people incarcerated there about the health of their loved ones, who say the conditions have been terrible inside Vacaville prison facilities. Inside, not everyone was ensured a mask, and while inmates may have already had cloth masks in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, those do not protect against the harsh smoke from the fire. Prisoners face the choice of sitting in sweltering heat or opening up an air vent and let in smoke and ash from the LNU Lightning Complex fire.

Public Policy Institute of California: California’s Incarcerated Population Plunges to New Low during COVID-19
By the end of July, 33,500 fewer people were incarcerated in California prisons and jails than in February—an 18% decline. Despite this drop, most prisons remain overcrowded, and many counties are experiencing renewed upticks in jail populations. In an effort to avert infection early in the pandemic, prison officials had halted admissions and released more than 6,000 inmates. Between February and July, the prison population (excluding camps) dropped by 13% to just over 99,000 inmates, a number not seen in over 30 years. Most prisons, however, remain populated far above the 50% level recommended by public health experts during the San Quentin outbreak. More than one-third of California’s 35 prisons are more than 25% over capacity. Only one is below 50% capacity. Prisoners’ criminal histories may partly explain this fact.

Curry Coastal Pilot: Prison nurses vote 'no confidence' in medical management
Amid the tension related to COVID-19 and pressures on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to release inmates, the union representing nurses at the state’s 35 prisons has filed a grievance alleging that the state violated their employment contract by requiring employees to work where an immediate and recognizable threat exists to their health and safety. Slow turn-around of staff COVID-19 testing — while inmate test results were available quickly — was among the list of concerns described by union representatives. Jerome Washington, president of the District Labor Council 749, and Laura Slavec, district bargaining unit representative for Local 1000 SEIU, said the vote on Thursday, Aug. 10, was the result of a toxic work environment.

Los Angeles Times: Faulty thermometers, untrained screeners may have let COVID-19 into prisons, watchdog says
Vague testing guidelines, faulty thermometers and inadequate staff training are suspected of contributing to the COVID-19 outbreak in California prisons that has killed at least 54 inmates and sickened more than 9,500 others, the state’s Office of Inspector General reported. The 47-page report, which focused on coronavirus screening of prison staff and “essential visitors,” such as contractors and attorneys, also criticized California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials for withholding key COVID-19 tracking data for months, hampering the watchdog’s review.

San Francisco Chronicle: Court considers releasing inmates vulnerable to COVID-19 from San Quentin
As the coronavirus sweeps through San Quentin State Prison, a state appeals court says it may order the prison to grant supervised release to hundreds of aging or medically vulnerable inmates. After a contentious hearing in which state lawyers rejected settlement talks that could lead to releases of San Quentin inmates, a panel of the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ordered prison officials Friday to justify any further refusal to remove those with heightened risk of COVID-19 from the 150-year-old prison. They include inmates serving sentences for non-capital crimes who are either 60 and older or suffering from conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.

COVID-19 Transmission in Corrections

St Louis Post Dispatch: COVID-19 cases in Missouri prison system increase 50% in less than a month
Confirmed cases of the coronavirus within the Missouri Department of Corrections have increased more than 50% during August, according to department figures published this week. State figures show 333 new cases among offenders and staff since the beginning of the month; the department had reported 661 total cases until that point. The state doesn’t always require prison staff to wear masks, generating frustration among prisoners and their families, the Columbia Missourian reported July 22. The newspaper reported that the eight states bordering Missouri all require prison staff to wear masks inside facilities.

COVID-19 in Rural Jails

Montana Standard: 30 inmates positive for COVID-19 in Yellowstone County jail
More than 30 inmates at Yellowstone County Detention Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In a press release from Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder Friday evening, he confirmed that approximately 30 out of 70 men tested in one housing unit had tested positive for the virus.Earlier Friday, Linder said that a total of six women in the "quarantine unit" were tested for COVID-19, after one woman began showing symptoms on Aug. 15.

East Idaho News: Four inmates test positive for COVID-19 at local jail
Earlier this year, the Bannock County Jail starting implementing new safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that they confirmed there first cases of the virus at the jail. The six symptomatic inmates were tested early this week and Wednesday the results came in. Four inmates were positive, one was negative, and one test is still pending. To help manage symptoms and prevent further spread through the jail inmates have been given easier access to pain killers, all inmates have masks and hand sanitizer is available throughout the jail. Pods are disinfected daily.

WYDAILY: More Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail inmates test positive for the coronavirus
More Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail inmates tested positive for the coronavirus, jail officials said in an email Thursday. This news comes a week after an inmate and jail staff member tested positive for the virus. The jail had tested inmates who were in close contact with the first inmate who tested positive, including those with symptoms in the same housing unit as a precaution with help from the Peninsula Health District and the Virginia Department of Health, according to the jail’s news release.