COCHS Weekly Update: September 21, 2021

Highlighted Stories

Politico: Biden starts clemency process for inmates released due to Covid conditions
The Biden administration has begun asking former inmates confined at home because of the pandemic to formally submit commutation applications. Those who have been asked for the applications fall into a specific category: drug offenders released to home under the pandemic relief bill known as the CARES Act with four years or less on their sentences. Neither the White House nor the Department of Justice clarified how many individuals have been asked for commutation applications or whether it would be expanding the universe of those it reached out to beyond that subset. But it did confirm that the president was beginning to take action.

Newsweek: Confinement and COVID-19: A Plea for Humanity for People in Prison
In an opinion piece, Shira Kieval, Alexandria Soybel, Zackary Berger and Panagis Galiatsatos, write: At least three in 10 people incarcerated or working in state and federal prisons have contracted COVID-19,resulting in more than 2,600 deaths. In the federal prison system alone, there have been more than 50,000 cases and nearly 250 deaths. Options for federal compassionate release in the federal prison system has resided with its respective wardens. Rarely, though, does the BOP intervene in court on anyone's behalf. Recently, the BOP disclosed that prison wardens denied over 98 percent of compassionate release requests during the first months of the pandemic. Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities (SUPPORT) Act
On October 24, 2018, the Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities (SUPPORT) Act became law. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is conducting a 54-month demonstration project to increase the treatment capacity of Medicaid providers to deliver substance use disorder treatment and recovery services. The demonstration project includes: Planning grants awarded to 15 states ($50 million aggregate) for 18 months and 36-month demonstrations with up to 5 states that received planning grants. The following State Medicaid agencies were selected in September 2021 to participate in the 36-month post-planning period: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, and West Virginia.

Prison Policy: States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021
Louisiana once again has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S., unseating Oklahoma to return to its long-held position as “the world’s prison capital.” By comparison, states like New York and Massachusetts appear progressive, but even these states lock people up at higher rates than nearly every other country on earth. Compared to the rest of the world, every U.S. state relies too heavily on prisons and jails to respond to crime.

New York Times: Justice Dept. to Investigate Georgia Prisons
The Justice Department has opened an investigation into allegations of unconstitutional abuses of prisoners in Georgia, a sweeping civil rights inquiry that could force the state to carry out a federally mandated overhaul. The department also separately limited whether and how federal law enforcement officers can use tactics that have been widely criticized for their role in the deaths of Black people at the hands of the local police, including neck restraints like chokeholds and unannounced searches for evidence. The Georgia investigation was prompted by documentation of violence in prisons across the state.

COVID-19 Sheriffs and Vaccine Mandate

Los Angeles Times: Riverside County sheriff says he will not enforce COVID-19 vaccine mandates
As President Biden escalates his administration’s efforts to require Americans to get vaccinated, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco says he will not enforce any vaccine mandates for Sheriff’s Department employees. Describing himself as “the last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach,” Bianco on Monday doubled down on statements he made during a Thursday episode of the department’s podcast.

ABC 5 KOCO : Three Oklahoma sheriffs say they won’t make employees get COVID-19 vaccine
Three Oklahoma sheriffs issued statements on social media saying that they will not require their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. On Monday, Logan County Sheriff’s Office posted Sheriff’s Damon Devereaux’s statement on the department’s official Facebook page. Devereaux said that they have seen an unprecedented amount of division, hate and contention among Americans since the beginning of the pandemic, which has become more intense since the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines.

COVID-19 Deaths

Washington Post: He lost one-third of his life to a wrongful conviction. Then he died of covid-19.
A death row exoneree who lost more than a third of his life in prison because of a wrongful conviction has died of covid-19 just weeks shy of his nine-year exoneration anniversary. Damon Thibodeaux, the 142nd person to be freed from death row in the United States, died Aug. 31, according to an obituary in his hometown newspaper, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. Although Thibodeaux was the rare prisoner to be exonerated, his death places him among more than 660,000 individuals in the United States who have died of covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

COVID-19's Impact on Criminal Justice

The Crime Report: Has the Pandemic Killed Jury Trials?
Criminal jury trials, as part of everyone’s Sixth Amendment right, have been declining for decades, down from approximately 20 percent of all federal cases to two percent between 1988 to 2018. The pandemic has exacerbated the decline, making the prospect of fair and impartial justice by a “jury of your peers,” increasingly elusive, according to a forthcoming paper in the Marquette Law Review. During the pandemic, federal jury trial rates fell as low as zero percent — meaning not a single case was moving forward in the court system, wrote the paper’s author, Brandon Marc Draper, currently Assistant County Attorney in Harris County, Texas.

COVID-19 and Opioid Epidemic

HealthDay: Fatal ODs From Illicit Tranquilizers Jumped 6-Fold During Pandemic
Overdose deaths linked to illicit "designer" benzodiazepines have surged in the United States, as underground labs crank out new synthetic variations on prescription tranquilizers like Valium, Xanax and Ativan. Overdose deaths involving illicit benzos increased more than sixfold (520%) between 2019 and 2020, rising from 51 to 316, according to data from 32 states and the District of Columbia. Their spread echoes previous U.S. experience with powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl, experts said. As the opioid epidemic unfolded, users progressed from prescription opioids like OxyContin or Vicodin to cheaper and more powerful illicit substitutes.

Physician Voices In Corrections

Slate: Patients Are Not Suspects
During my medical residency, I worked at San Quentin. On my first day, my supervisor told me that I was not allowed to refer to those I treated as patients in clinical documents—only as inmates. However much they suffered from illness, the language implied, it was essential never to forget their criminality. Learning to refer to my patients only by a word that dehumanized them took practice. For weeks, I messed up in my notes, and was made to correct each instance.

Racial Disparities

Men's Health: Black Americans Are Now Outpacing White Americans in Opioid Deaths
Opioid overdose-related deaths among African-Americans are increasing compared to those of white Americans, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health. Once considered a crisis affecting primarily white Americans, the opioid crisis now affects largely communities of color, the research suggests. Using state death certificate data across the four states of Kentucky, Ohio, Massachusetts and New York, researchers found a 38 percent increase in opioid overdose-related deaths among African-Americans between 2018 and 2019, and no increase for other ethnic groups.

Washington Post: Ivermectin experiments in Arkansas jail recall long history of medical abuse
People detained at a jail in northwestern Arkansas recently reported that the facility’s medical professionals deceived them into taking ivermectin — a drug being touted by Republican lawmakers, talk show hosts and a small number of doctors and patient advocates for treating covid-19 — although the Food and Drug Administration has not approved the drug for this purpose. The jail’s doctor, Rob Karas, advocated ivermectin use on Facebook and claimed that 350 people detained at the jail voluntarily took the drug. However, Karas and nurses allegedly told inmates they were taking vitamins. This incident recalls a period in the 20th century when doctors without consent to study whether penicillin and other drugs prevented the spread of sexually transmitted infections. It reminds us how nonconsensual research use of drugs on vulnerable people remain common — despite evidence of its danger and laws designed to prevent it.

Rikers Island

CBS News: Kathy Hochul calls New York's incarceration rate a "point of shame," orders the release of 191 Rikers Island inmates
New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Friday signed the "Less Is More" act and ordered the immediate release of 191 inmates housed at Rikers Island in an attempt to reduce the state's prison population. "New York State incarcerates more people for parole violations than anywhere in the country. That is a point of shame for us, and it needs to be fixed. It's going to be fixed today," Hochul said at a press conference Friday. "Our fellow New Yorkers on parole deserve to re-enter society with our support and respect — re-incarcerating parolees for technical violations traps them and doesn't help our communities."

New York Times: With Rikers in Crisis, Critics Wonder: Where Is Bill de Blasio?
Facing withering criticism over a growing crisis at the Rikers Island jail complex, where 10 people have died this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday announced a five-point plan for addressing problems there and said he would visit the complex “at some point.” Staff shortages at Rikers have led to a series of violent episodes and an unsanitary and chaotic environment inside the jail, a federal monitor said this summer. As the complex has grown less safe, calls have grown for Mr. de Blasio to go there — something he has not done in four years — and to move aggressively to improve the dangerous conditions.

New York Times: 10 Deaths, Exhausted Guards, Rampant Violence: Why Rikers Is in Crisis
New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex has long had a reputation for brutal conditions, but in recent months the situation inside has spun out of control. Ten people incarcerated at Rikers have died this year, at least five by suicide — the largest death toll at the jail in years. Gangs and other detainees are ushering other incarcerated people to and from their dorms. Jail officials have reported that on average, 2,000 officers were out sick or unable to work on a single day at certain points this summer. It is unclear how many were actually ill.

New York Times: N.Y.C. Sues Jail Officers, Saying Illegal Strike Worsened Rikers Crisis
New York City on Monday sued a union representing its jail officers, saying that the staff absenteeism that has led to an ongoing crisis on Rikers Island amounted to an illegal strike that had endangered staff and detainees there alike. The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, said that the union, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, and its leadership had condoned a coordinated campaign of absenteeism over the course of this year, which led to a sharp degradation in the quality of life at the notorious jail complex.

The City: Rikers Island Guard’s Desertion of Post Led to Detainee’s Death, Family Alleges
A man who died in a Rikers Island cell would still be alive if the exhausted correction officer supervising him had not left his post 15 hours earlier, the detainee’s family charged in a legal notice filed Monday. Robert Jackson, 42, was found dead inside a housing unit at the Anna M. Kross Center at around 10 p.m. on June 30, according to jail records. Before leaving his post, the officer in the area had been working for over 20 hours without relief and begged to be replaced, according to the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.

Gothamist: COVID Is Surging Back Into Rikers and NYC Jails
At a city council hearing on Wednesday, correctional medical officials sounded the alarm about an uptick in coronavirus infections at New York City jails including Rikers Island, noting that many more tests are coming back positive at these facilities relative to the city overall. “Early on in 2020 when the pandemic had just hit, the rate of positivity among our patient population was higher than in the city,” Patsy Yang, Senior Vice President for Correctional Health Services, told the council. “We enjoyed a reversal at some point in 2020, but that regrettably has reversed again.”

CBS News: Cockroaches, rotting food and garbage: Lawmakers say Rikers Island jail conditions are a "public health issue"
New York State lawmakers are calling for greater criminal justice reform amid "an absolute humanitarian crisis" at Rikers Island jail complex. The ten facilities situated in the East River near New York City are scheduled to close by 2027, putting an end to some of its longstanding issues of violence and neglect. "The place is in a state of emergency, and we need to act now," New York State Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas told CBS News' Lana Zak on Thursday. "We must work to decarcerate."


Tulsa World: Sheriff Regalado says Oklahoma should be ashamed that jails have become mental health facilities
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado is proud of the mental health programs at his jail, but he wishes he didn’t have them, he said Monday. “It’s going to be nice to hear that a jail is doing these things,” Regalado told an Oklahoma House of Representatives panel. “But when you think about it, a jail is doing these things, and that’s the depressing part of it all.” Expanded Medicaid might have helped, he said, except that people in jail are ineligible for Medicaid. The only way they can become eligible is for the charges to be dropped, which Turner said often results in the person in question skipping treatment.


NRDC: Environmental Injustices Plague Parchman Prison, Mississippi
An investigation by NRDC and our partners at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reveals persistent and continuing drinking water and wastewater violations at the notorious Parchman prison in Mississippi. Individuals incarcerated at Parchman have long reported discolored drinking water tasting alternately of sewage and strong disinfectant, as well as inoperable, overflowing toilets and many other water issues. NRDC and SPLC investigated these complaints—and found widespread malfunctioning and ill-maintained drinking water and sewage treatment systems. In a joint letter sent to prison officials, Mississippi state agencies, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NRDC and SPLC describe Parchman’s multiple, years-long violations of federal environmental laws and urge the agencies to diligently resolve them to protect the health of individuals incarcerated there.


The Hill: Florida sheriff fired after asking inmate to say 'I can't breathe,' saying he looked like George Floyd
A sheriff's deputy in Lee County, Fla., was fired from the department after telling an inmate that he resembled George Floyd, asking him to say “I can’t breathe,” USA Today reported. Internal affairs reports released on Wednesday showed that Rodney Payne, who had been fired Aug. 26, had his appointments withdrawn. The investigation found that Payne made the remarks to a specific inmate who he believed resembled George Floyd, asking him to recite Floyd’s last words before he died. Payne said the remarks while his immediate supervisor was present.

Daily Beast: Florida Cop From Hell Charged Over Nightmare Anal Probe
An ex-cop with a history of discipline for making inappropriate comments and using excessive force against Black residents has been criminally charged with sexual battery for an assault on a Black man during a traffic stop, the Orlando Sentinel reported. In August 2014, Jonathan Mills, a former “officer of the year” in the Orlando Police Department, decided to search a Black man who was a passenger in a car that had been stopped by police because they believed it belonged to a suspect. In a deposition that was part of an excessive force lawsuit against Mills that was settled in 2017, the victim said Mills grilled him about drugs he believed he was hiding and penetrated his anus with a finger.


VT Digger: Maine reentry facility could be model for troubled Vermont women’s prison
A reentry facility for incarcerated women in Maine could be a model for replacing the troubled Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Women at the Maine center are “treated with a level of dignity and respect and put in an environment of ownership for the program,” interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker said at the hearing. “And what do we do here in Vermont?” he said. “We send them off to a facility that is an embarrassment.” Chittenden Regional has for years been notorious for unsanitary conditions, with showers reportedly reeking of human waste and infested with sewer flies and maggots.

Illinois Newsroom: New Campaign Aims To Help Formerly Incarcerated People Through Laws, Outreach
A new statewide campaign called Fully Free, launched at the end of June, aims to change the laws and stigmas that affect those with a criminal record.According to a research report from Fully Free, there are 3.3 million adults in Illinois today that have been arrested or convicted of a crime since 1979. That report says there are 1,189 laws in Illinois that impact people’s access to employment, housing, education and other opportunities. Reentry programs provide resources that people should be getting from governments. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2017, African Americans made up 15% of Illinois’s population but made up 56% of the state’s prison population.

Mental Healthcare Initiatives in Corrections

Arkansas Democrat Gazette: UAMS to reopen mental health alternative to jail in Washington County
An alternative to jail for those with mental health needs in Washington County will reopen under University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences management. The Northwest Arkansas Crisis Stabilization Unit in Fayetteville closed June 30 as the nonprofit organization that staffed it, Ozark Guidance, cited cuts in state funding. The 16-bed facility opened in 2019 as a pilot project with state support. The unit is one of four such sites across the state envisioned as serving individuals voluntarily agreeing to stay at the facilities after encounters with law enforcement.