COCHS Weekly Update: January 05, 2021

COVID-19 Transmission in Corrections

The New York Times: States Are Shutting Down Prisons as Guards are Crippled By Covid-19
Battered by a wave of coronavirus infections and deaths, local jails and state prison systems around the United States have resorted to a drastic strategy to keep the virus at bay: Shutting down completely and transferring their inmates elsewhere. From California to Missouri to Pennsylvania, state and local officials say that so many guards have fallen ill with the virus and are unable to work that abruptly closing some correctional facilities is the only way to maintain community security and prisoner safety.

Anchorage Daily News: Nearly every inmate in Alaska’s largest prison has now had COVID-19, officials say
Nearly every inmate at Alaska’s largest prison has contracted COVID-19, according to data provided by the state Department of Corrections. While few cases are still considered active, the high number of infections underscores the difficulties of containing the virus in tight congregate living situations, where it remains challenging to follow basic health guidelines designed to mitigate the spread.

Los Angeles Times: As sheriff struggles to contain COVID-19 outbreaks, active infections in San Diego jails exceed 500
Nine months after the novel coronavirus took root in San Diego County jails, cases are continuing to spread, and employees and inmates say they are afraid for their safety. The Sheriff’s Department is now reporting more than 400 active cases of the coronavirus among its inmates — or 11% of the total jail population. Among sheriff’s deputies and other staff, the number of cumulative positive cases has climbed to 316. Of those, 134 are active infections. The department said 181 employees had recovered from the virus and one person had died.

New Hampshire Union Leader: Judge orders man freed from Valley Street jail citing jail's 'cavalier attitude' toward COVID
A Superior Court judge who last week ordered home confinement for a Valley Street jail inmate who contracted COVID-19 was critical of a “cavalier attitude” toward the deadly disease at the facility. The order came a day after a lengthy hearing that disclosed nearly non-existent testing for inmates, a high rate of infection among staff and practices that do not conform to state and federal guidelines.

COVID-19 Vaccines for The Incarcerated

Justice Lab Columbia University: Recommendations for Prioritization and Distribution of COVID-19 Vaccine in Prisons and Jails
This white paper makes following four recommendations: 1) States should prioritize vaccine distribution to all incarcerated people at the same stage as correctional officers (essential workers/first responders) or higher; 2) States should create vaccine distribution and implementation plans developed by medical & public health professionals that are specific to correctional systems; 3) State advisory vaccine groups should have correctional healthcare, administrative leadership, and justice-involved individuals in committees; 4) States should identify policies and methods to effectively fund vaccine distribution and administration in correctional systems and following release.

The Washington Post: Early vaccination in prisons, a public health priority, proves politically charged
Colorado’s coronavirus vaccination plan, which put incarcerated people in line for coronavirus immunization ahead of the elderly and those with chronic conditions, had been released by the state health department. It was the product of months of deliberation by members of the state’s medical advisory group — physicians, public health officials and experts in bioethics. But their framework, when subject to the machinery of online outrage, quickly unraveled.

The New York Times: California Begins Vaccinating Inmates, but Not at Its Hardest-Hit Prisons
California’s prison system, which has been exceptionally hard-hit by the coronavirus, has started vaccinating some inmates — but none so far at the 25 prisons that have been most overwhelmed by infections, including San Quentin, Avenal State Prison and the California Institution for Men. The crowded, unsanitary conditions in prisons have made them epicenters for the virus. In recent weeks, there have been heated discussions in some states about whether inmates should receive vaccinations ahead of others.

West Hawaii Today: COVID-19 vaccine to be available for inmates, staffers early this year
With the coronavirus making its unwelcome presence felt in three Oahu correctional facilities and a private Arizona prison housing Hawaii inmates, COVID-19 vaccinations will soon be available for the state’s prisons and jail staff. According to Department of Public Safety, staffers in the state’s jails and prisons are included in Phase 1B of the state’s vaccinations plan, and those who elect to receive the non-compulsory two-shot vaccination are set to do so early this year.

Tri-City Herald: Geriatric inmates and staff at Connell prison on priority list for COVID vaccine
Staff in a long-term care unit at Connell’s prison and geriatric inmates with chronic medical needs have started receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in an attempt to stop the rapid spread of the virus through state facilities. The Washington state Department of Corrections announced that it has been given limited doses by the Department of Health, and worked with health officials to prioritize early recipients.

KATC: As virus spreads, prisoners worry they're not being considered in vaccine distribution plans
As thousands of Americans get the COVID-19 vaccine, prisoners are worried they are being overlooked, even though they live in environments prone to large outbreaks. According to the nonprofit COVID Prison Project, 14 states have listed incarcerated populations in their phase 1 vaccine distribution plans, 23 have them in phase two, and one has them in phase three. Meanwhile, 11 states have not included these populations in their distribution plans at all.

Lompoc Record: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara county jails begin vaccinating contract health workers
Medical employees who work under contract at the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county jails are in the process of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as part of the statewide effort to begin protecting frontline workers against the virus, according to officials. The employees are contracted by Wellpath, a Nashville-based inmate health company. Inmates and custody deputies in San Luis Obispo are not being offered the vaccine, according to San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Grace Norris.

COVID-19 Transmission from Corrections to Community

Prison Policy Initiative: Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread
Mass incarceration and the failure to reduce prison and jail populations quickly led directly to an increase in COVID-19 cases. Not only did officials do little to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within correctional facilities, but they also did little to prevent the transmission of the virus from prison and jail hotspots to nearby surrounding communities. As a consequence, ignoring, downplaying, and distorting this systematic failure left communities exposed.

COVID-19 Early Release

The Hill: Massive COVID-19 spike of 38,000 California prisoners sparks calls for early releases
More than 38,000 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, following a recent spike predicted by the office of the inspector general in an independent oversight report last month. While California has started vaccinating inmates with special medical needs, supply remains limited and advocates say more inmates need to be released. More coronavirus cases are connected to 60 prisons in the state than more than 300 nursing homes, as well as colleges, universities and food processing facilities.

San Francisco Chronicle: San Quentin Prison COVID releases delayed by state Supreme Court
As COVID-19 swept through San Quentin State Prison, a California appeals court took the dramatic step in October of ordering the release or transfer of at least half of the prison’s inmates. But the court acted without hearing testimony from prison officials, inmates or medical experts, and now the state Supreme Court has put the order on hold and told the appellate panel to take another look.

Correctional Health Care Vendors and Private Prisons

Reuters: Georgia legislators seek scrutiny of jail deaths as new case emerges
Georgia lawmakers are calling for greater oversight of the Chatham County Detention Center over a string of deaths documented in a series of reports by Reuters. At least 24 inmates died over 12 years at the facility, two-thirds of them in the last seven years, as the Savannah jail’s healthcare was managed by two different companies (Corizon & CorrectHealth). The lawmakers said the pattern of deaths raises questions about the role of private industry in inmate healthcare. For more details about Chatham County Detention Center see COCHS website.

The Advocate: Latest inmate death at Baton Rouge jail comes as officials weigh new health care contract
News that an inmate of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison died last weekend came at a pivotal time for the private company (CorrectHealth) in charge of prisoner medical care, which could lose its contract in the coming months. City officials announced earlier this year their decision to solicit proposals for a new contract, acknowledging the outsized inmate death rate and other concerns about CorrectHealth, the company now in charge. That request for proposal process is finally about to get started and officials expect to have a new contract in place before summer.

WREG: Family of ICE detainee who died of COVID-19 sues for wrongful death
Carlos Escobar Mejia died in a hospital after contracting COVID-19 while being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in south San Diego County. He is considered the first person to die while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. The Otay Mesa Detention Center is run by a private company called CoreCivic under the direction of ICE. In the suit, Escobar’s family claims “negligence, deliberate indifference to serious health and safety needs and wrongful death.” Furthermore, they claim Escobar was held in conditions that would “expose him to a deadly disease.”

The Tennessee Tribune: CoreCivic Hoping Private Prison Debate Stymies Under New Administration
The national conversation surrounding the private prison system has been at the fore of many social justice narratives, but executives of the nation’s biggest private prison contractor, CoreCivic, are hoping the incoming Biden administration will find the institution necessary or be too busy to put the industry at the top of its priority list, Nashville Post’s Matt Blois reported. President-Elect Joe Biden made headlines during his campaign with a promise to end the government’s use of for-profit prisons. His win caused investors to flee from the company, with stocks falling 20 percent over a few days after the vote count.

The Crimson White: Alabama students protest Ivey’s private prison plan
CoreCivic will break ground for the first time in Alabama with a prison in Elmore County and Escambia County. Prior to 2016, the company was known as the Corrections Corporation of America but rebranded after a slew of bad press surrounding its Tennessee facilities. Alabama Students Against Prisons (ASAP), a coalition of university students from across the state, protested Regions Bank’s funding of these new private prisons. The group of about 30 protesters gathered outside the bank’s downtown Birmingham location on Monday evening.

The Charlotte Observer: Family of man who killed himself in jail sues Spokane County
The family of a Washington state man who killed himself in a Spokane County Jail in 2018 is suing the county, saying its public defender’s office was not properly trained to deal with people with mental health issues. Rogers had been arrested in November 2017 after he escaped from a mental health treatment facility and stole a car. His family is suing both the county and NaphCare, the company that provides mental health evaluations for inmates.

The San Diego Union Tribune: Sheriff reverses course on plan to outsource health care in county jails
Sheriff Bill Gore has withdrawn his proposal to outsource the balance of medical and mental-health services to jail inmates, determining after more than a year of exploration that county employees do the job better. The sheriff had been preparing to place all of his health care contractors — physicians, dentists, nurses and other experts — under a single contractor.

Technology and Criminal Justice

The New York Times: Another Arrest, and Jail Time, Due to a Bad Facial Recognition Match
A New Jersey man was accused of shoplifting and trying to hit an officer with a car. He is the third known Black man to be wrongfully arrested based on face recognition. In February 2019, Nijeer Parks was accused of shoplifting candy and trying to hit a police officer with a car at a Hampton Inn in Woodbridge, N.J. The police had identified him using facial recognition software, even though he was 30 miles away at the time of the incident.

Carceral State

Politico: How Thousands of American Laws Keep People ‘Imprisoned’ Long After They’re Released
Nationwide, 45,000 “collateral consequences” regulate the lives of people with criminal records, dictating where they may work, with whom they may live and how they may spend their time, according to a database of laws, policies and administrative sanctions compiled by the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section. Rules seem arbitrary. In Illinois, people with felony records couldn’t work as barbers until 2016, when the Legislature amended the Barber, Cosmetology, Esthetics, Hair Braiding, and Nail Technology Act of 1985.

PEW: Comprehensive Policies Can Improve Probation and Parole
Research has consistently shown that supervision is not effective for individuals with a low risk of reoffending and can even increase that risk. Additionally, probation and parole may be overly punitive for people who commit minor offenses. The council recommends using alternative sanctions, including community service for people convicted of low-level offenses such as traffic violations and minor drug crimes.

Medical Marijuana in Corrections

Santa Fe New Mexican: New Mexico inmates’ right to medical marijuana affirmed
A state district judge in Albuquerque ruled this week that Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center must allow qualifying patients access to medical marijuana, in a victory for advocates that could have far-reaching implications for jails and prisons. It was unclear whether correctional facilities statewide would voluntarily comply with the ruling. But state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, an attorney who represented a defendant in the DWI case that led to the decision, said he intends to send notice to jails and prisons asking them to comply.

Criminal Justice's Mental Health Initiatives

Post Register: Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center helped people who would otherwise face jail, and saved taxpayers money
Ten years ago, police in Idaho Falls responding to an incident involving a person with a mental illness had two options: leave the person where they are, or take them to jail. In 2014 a new option became available: Take them to the Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center of East Idaho, where people going through a mental health crisis can receive help. In the six years since it opened, the center has become a mainstay of eastern Idaho's justice system by giving people in crisis an opportunity to seek help.

WDTN: Miami County Jail makes Mental health specialist part of staff
In response to the increase of suicide attempts at both the downtown jail and the Incarceration Facility, Miami County (Ohio) Sheriff’s Office recently initiated an on-site mental health specialist four days of the week. The Tri-County Board of Mental Health provides the service to the jail at no cost to the county. TCBMH serves Darke, Shelby, and Miami counties through the support of a local tax levy for mental health support services. Miami County Sheriff Dave Duchak said each year mental health issues seem to increase in both facilities, but in 2020 he said “it just exploded.”