By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, many of us have the opportunity to social distance, avoid public gatherings, or change our daily lifestyle to reduce the risk of infection. However, prisoners are in a much more difficult position.
Prisons are often filled to capacity and overcrowded, which reduces the ability of inmates to social distance. Furthermore, prison living conditions are not designed for preventing the spread of a virus, especially one as apparently as contagious as the coronavirus.
Jails and Prisons Are Often Dirty and Have Little in the Way of Infection Control
For example, Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer at New York City’s Rikers Island jail, was quoted in The Marshall Project as saying, “Jails and prisons are often dirty and have really very little in the way of infection control.” Venters went on to add, “There are lots of people using a small number of bathrooms. Many of the sinks are broken or not in use. You may have access to water, but nothing to wipe your hands off with, or no access to soap.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides recommendations to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, which include:
- Wash your hands often
- Avoid close contact
- Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others
- Cover coughs and sneezes
- Clean and disinfect
- Monitor your health daily
Each of these recommendations presents challenges to prisoners. Hand washing may not be practical if access to functioning sinks or soap is limited. Avoiding close contact may not be possible for inmates within the general population of the prison. Cloth face coverings are impractical for safety and security reasons.
Also, access to cleaning and disinfecting supplies may be limited due to safety concerns that the chemicals could be harmful to corrections staff or the inmates themselves. In addition, prison staff are also at an increased risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
New Case of Coronavirus in United States Prisons
These challenges are likely responsible for the high number of prisoners who have tested positive for the coronavirus. As of July 7, at least 57,019 prisoners in the United States have tested positive. This reflects a 9% increase from the previous week. During June, the number of new cases starting to dip but by the end of the month new outbreaks were reported in prisons in California, Texas, and Arkansas. By July 14th, at least 64,119 prison inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus, which is a 13% increase from the week before.
This is a trend that is expected nationwide. According to a modeling study published by the American Civil Liberties Union along with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Tennessee, and Washington State University, community spread infections from jails could add between 99,000 to 188,000 people to the coronavirus death toll in the United States over time.
Deaths in Prison Due to the Coronavirus
Since the pandemic reached the U.S. soon after the holiday season, at least 680 prisoners have died from coronavirus-related causes. By July 7, prison inmate deaths due to the coronavirus increased 6% in a week. The first known coronavirus-related fatality in a U.S. prison occurred on March 26, 2020, when Anthony Cheek, a 49-year-old inmate in Lee State Prison died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Steps Being Taken to Reduce the Risk of Coronavirus in Prisons
While there is no perfect solution to the problem of the coronavirus in prisons, prisons have taken several initiatives. One option calls for reducing prison populations through early-release programs. Local jails have been more active in reducing their populations by reducing bonds or releasing non-violent offenders. But it is more complex in state prisons.
However, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced on June 16 that inmates imprisoned for non-violent offenses with fewer than 180 days left on their sentence will be eligible for supervised release. Approximately 8,000 California inmates could be released by August.
NJSP reports that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, had killed more than 43 inmates in the New Jersey state prison system by May. But “it is virtually impossible to know exactly how many prisoners have been temporarily released,” a prison official acknowledged. Additional initiatives include eliminating inmate medical co-pays, eliminating visitations by friends and family, and reducing the cost of telephone or video calls so that inmates may remain in communication with family members.
Eliminating visitations may be necessary to prevent the introduction of the coronavirus into the facility. Since this is likely to adversely impact inmates, developing protocols where prison visitors are temperature checked, required to wear a mask, and have documentation of a negative coronavirus test within the past days is one way to overcome this challenge.
The challenges that prisons are experiencing due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic require continuing attention. Improving prison facilities is essential in addressing this problem. Restrooms that are equipped with hand soap and disposable towels, providing physical barriers that promote or require social distancing, and utilizing outside prison space is essential in reducing this problem.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Central America, and Europe on the topics of human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, police responses to domestic terrorism, and various topics in policing. Most recently, he presented at the International Human Trafficking Conference. He has conducted research in prison management in the United States, Central America, and South America. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction, and intelligence gathering.