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By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
Like most countries, the United States is carefully monitoring the spread of the coronavirus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has labeled COVID-19. The international concern to contain the coronavirus from spreading further by quarantining those who contracted the virus is undoubtedly warranted.
As of this writing, the number of U.S. cases is relatively low (99 cases at 10 deaths), but public health officials expect that number to increase despite our best efforts to contain it. In response, the U.S. is taking a number of precautionary measures, including restricting international travel to and from countries that have been most affected, namely China and Italy at this moment.
Coronavirus Reports Causing Global Concern
The daily media briefings, although well-intended, have caused mass concern worldwide and the U.S. is not an exception. American citizens have actively changed their daily routines, including canceling their travel plans, both foreign and domestic. “Out of stock” signs are found in the stores where hand sanitizers and other antiseptics and sterilizers are usually sold. Manufacturers of face masks, typically used by medical personnel, cannot keep up with production demands. As a result, many products are on backorder despite repeated, urgent warnings from the U.S. Surgeon General that the masks will not prevent the spread of coronavirus. Instead, they take away important resources from public health care professionals.
However, if we operate under the assumption that the coronavirus will likely spread throughout the United States, then we, as a nation, must take extraordinary preventative measures. We must ensure that we can contain the virus especially in closed environments where people tend to congregate in close proximity, thereby increasing the likelihood of contracting the virus.
Correctional Officers and Inmates at Risk of Exposure
One particular segment of the U.S. population that is often neglected or forgotten altogether is our nation’s prisoners. Trying to contain the virus within the nation’s prisons and jails should prove challenging, if not impossible. Confinement creates incredible safety and security concerns not only for the prisoners, but also for those employed by the prisons, including correctional officers, treatment staff, and contract personnel. Staff shortages due to quarantines would be disastrous because most prisons and jails are overcrowded and already have correctional staff shortages.
The Department of Justice notes that more than 650,000 prisoners are released each year and over 95 percent of those in prison will return to society at some point. To compound matters, a 2019 Prison Policy Initiative report found that 4.9 million people are jailed each year; at least one in four who are released subsequently return to jail the same year.
So, even though prisons and jails are closed, locked-down environments, the number of individuals entering and exiting our nation’s prisons and jails is voluminous. In addition, we cannot continue to legally confine someone who has been released by court order, parole approval, or by posting bail. Therefore, this revolving door predicament that we find ourselves in could further complicate preventative initiatives to contain the coronavirus at our nation’s correctional institutions.
According to Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, “It’s not so much of a question of if [the spread of COVID-19] will happen in this country any more, but a question of when this will happen.” Public officials do not know if the spread of the virus will be mild or severe, she added, but Americans should be prepared for it to disrupt their daily lives. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” said Messonnier.
Action Plan Needed for Correctional Facilities
Even though correctional professionals are accustomed to working in an environment in which exposure to communicable, infectious diseases is unfortunately all-too-common, we must still devise and implement a sustainable action plan for our nation’s prisons and jails. This is a new type of virus with a lot of unknowns about how it spreads, how long it lives outside the body, and how long it remains dormant in those exposed.
The coronavirus will likely join the ranks of infectious diseases that correctional employees are exposed to, including tuberculosis, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Hepatitis B and C, influenza, and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and now, with the additional potential to involve emerging threats such as COVID-19.
Corrections professionals, like most public safety professionals, routinely perform lifesaving, medical support and other functions oftentimes in an unpredictable and uncontrolled environment, and often under adverse working conditions that can increase the risk of exposure.
American Military University’s Drs. Chuck Russo and Samer Koutoubi wrote an article for In Public Safety emphasizing that healthcare workers and first responders are at a significantly higher risk because they are more likely to be in close contact with individuals infected with the coronavirus. Therefore, correctional institutions and the professionals that operate these facilities must also prepare for the reality that the virus will infiltrate our nation’s prisons and jails.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) notes that public safety occupations — including emergency medical services (EMS), corrections, law enforcement, and fire services — are regularly exposed to airborne and vector-borne infectious diseases as well as blood and bodily fluid transmitted diseases.
The NIOSH emphasizes that corrections officers can be exposed to a wide and diverse variety of infectious agents when interacting with prison and jail detainees. These so-called infectious agents vary in their methods of transmission including, but not limited to contact with the skin, mucous membranes (such as the eyes and nose), or inhalation. Not wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respiratory protection, eye / face protection, and gloves increase the risk of exposure to such infectious diseases.
I strongly concur with the recommendations of the NIOSH, which calls for more research into the development and implementation of new methods and tools to gather data, measure, and report the extent of infectious disease exposures among correctional employees.
Basic research is needed to better define the exposure pathways to airborne and vector-borne diseases. Interventions to prevent exposures to, and transmissions of, infectious diseases need to be developed, and studies conducted to demonstrate their effectiveness.
Lastly, translational research is needed to understand the barriers surrounding the adoption and use of personal protective equipment among correctional workers.
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About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration. He also served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice; an M.P.A. in Public Administration; and a Ph.D. in criminal justice. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.